"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Devil’s Canyon (RKO, 1953)


Jailed lawman does the right thing





 
You might expect a Western with the title Devil’s Canyon to be another one in which Dale Robertson trapped a wild stallion (as he was to do in Black Horse Canyon), or maybe it would be about a hole-in-the-wall lair of outlaws. In fact, though, it’s just another prison movie dressed up as an oater (a bit like Hellgate the year before or There Was a Crooked Man in 1970) and it is centered on Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona. Why the prison is known as a canyon is never made clear. The picture’s working title had been Arizona Outpost, which isn’t much better. In other languages it was called La Nuit Sauvage, Noche Salvaje, etc.

It was 1953 and so the picture was shot in 3D, all the rage early that year, but like other such movies, by the time it was released, in August, the craze was already on the decline and so no one got to don the plastic 3D eyeglasses. In any case the vast majority of audiences saw these films in traditional format even if they were released in 3D.

No such luck

It was very much an RKO B-Western, with a cheap-looking studio set doing duty for Yuma. There are very few location shots – some round Cortaro, AZ and others in Bronson Canyon, Griffith Park. The picture was shot in Technicolor but the modern print at least has those blue-wash pastel shades that reminds us of Republic’s Trucolor process. Perhaps it had brighter colors originally. The DP was Nicholas Musuraca, who started shooting Tom Tyler silent Westerns in the 20s but would later do a fine job on RKO's Blood on the Moon (1948). Devil’s Canyon, however, has little to recommend it from a visual point of view.

Nick shot it

The picture did have one thing to recommend it, though, and that was the excellent cast. It was headed by blonde bombshell Virginia Mayo, Rosalind van Hoorn in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, who did quite a few Westerns. She was, notably, Colorado in Colorado Territory in 1949, her first oater, with Joel McCrea, then she was in Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas in 1951 and The Iron Mistress with Alan Ladd in ’52 (with some ambiguity if the iron mistress of the title was Bowie’s knife or Ms. Mayo), so this was her fourth. Later she would do The Proud Ones with Robert Ryan and would return with Ladd in The Big Land and with McCrea in The Tall Stranger. So she was quite used to the genre. In Devil’s Canyon she plays a glam stage robber who, in an extremely improbable plot twist, is sent to Yuma (an all-male prison) which just happens to be where her lover Stephen McNally is incarcerated as well as her would-be lover Dale.

Fascinating how Virginia's skirt got shorter as the poster changed. Perhaps for different audiences? Let's say, er, Utah (left), Paris, France (center) and California (right).

It was that boy's lucky day

Actually, to be fair to the movie, there was a woman prisoner at Yuma, and she was a stage robber too. It was Pearl Hart. In 1899 (though the movie is set in 1897) Hart and an accomplice known as Joe Boot (probably an alias) decided to rob a stagecoach that traveled between Globe and Florence, Arizona, one of the last stagecoach routes still operating in the territory. Hart had cut her hair short and was dressed as a man. She was armed with a .38 revolver while Boot had a Colt .45. Boot held his gun on the passengers while Hart pocketed $431.20 and two firearms. After the robbers had galloped away, the driver unhitched one of the horses and headed back to town to alert the sheriff. Classic Western stuff.

Pearl in Yuma

She doesn't look happy. Well, not surprising.

And, also in true Western fashion, a posse was organized. Sheriff Truman of Pinal County and his men caught up with the pair on June 5. Sheriff Truman reported that he found them both asleep, and that Boot surrendered quietly while Hart fought to avoid capture. Hart was imprisoned in Tucson, there being no facilities for women in Florence, but escaped in October, being recaptured near Deming, NMT two weeks later. Both Hart and Boot were then sent to Yuma Territorial Prison to serve their sentences. Boot became a prison trusty, driving supply wagons to chain gangs working outside the walls. One day while driving a wagon he escaped and was never seen again.

As for Hart, she became quite a celebrity. The warden allowed her to entertain newspaper reporters and other guests as well as pose for photographs. Hart is said to have used her position as the only female at an all-male facility to her advantage, playing admiring guards and prison trusties off each other in an effort to improve her situation. She was finally released after a December 1902 pardon from Arizona Territorial Governor Alexander Brodie. Her later life is shrouded in mystery. By one account she worked for a time for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Quite a story.

Having said all that, though, Virginia Mayo’s Abby Nixon bears little resemblance to Pearl Hart – especially in looks!

Although…

Dale Robertson, still four years before Tales of Wells Fargo, had started Westerns as a cameo Jesse James in Fighting Man of the Plains, a 1949 Fox picture with Randolph Scott, and then had had small parts in Two Flags West, The Cariboo Trail and The Secret of Convict Lake before finally starring in the 1952 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat and the not-very-Western Return of the Texan, before Devil’s Canyon. He’d complete 1953 with City of Bad Men and The Silver Whip and in ’54 he’d do Sitting Bull and The Gambler from Natchez. He was OK in big-screen Westerns. In Devil’s Canyon he plays an ex-lawman who has hung up his guns. Indeed, the whole town has, and there is a local ordinance that prohibits gunfighting of any kind. Two thugs, the Gormans (John Cliff and Fred Coby) come to town to exact revenge on Dale because when he was sheriff he had put their brother Jessie away. The movie starts out Western enough as there is a running gunfight in the street and the two heavies are duly dispatched by Dale, with borrowed sixguns. That’s enough to get the ex-lawman himself locked up, and it’s Yuma for him, a ten-year stretch.

Dale doesn't work for Wells, Fargo yet

As for third-billed McNally, He had first appeared in our beloved genre as James Stewart’s evil brother in Winchester ’73, the one who steals the famed rifle, and then Universal had decided to try him out as Western lead, in Wyoming Mail, Apache Drums and The Stand at Apache River. He also played as the marshal alongside Audie Murphy in The Duel at Silver Creek. But it didn’t really take and after that it was ever-smaller parts and then TV work. I must say, though, he isn’t too bad (within the limits of the rather pedestrian script) in Devil’s Canyon as the tough boss convict determined to get the lawman who put him away, the lawman who is now a fellow inmate. Later in the film he flirts with madness. He will, we know early on, definitely come to a sticky end and (if I may be allowed a spoiler) he duly does, at the wrong end of a Gatling gun fired by Dale.

Bad guy McNally (with henchman Bill Phillips)

It doesn't end well for McNally

Who else have we got? Well, good old Arthur Hunnicutt has an entertaining comic-relief part as a lifer who is Dale’s cellmate, Whit Bissell is another fellow incarceree, Robert Keith (Brian’s dad) is quite good as the warden, Jay C Flippen is the sadistic head of the prison guards, Morris Ankrum is the sheriff who arrests Dale in the first reel (though never seen again), Earl Holliman is a henchman and Irving Bacon is a corrupt guard who falls for Mayo’s wiles. You also get, criminally uncredited but unmistakable, Paul Fix and Glenn Strange the Great. See? I told you it was a good cast.

Arthur gets 50 years

It was a bit wasted, though, with stodgy direction and plodding writing. The first was by Alfred L Werker, a RKO stalwart, who directed 14 Westerns between 1928 and 1956 but never managed to get any zip in them to speak of. About his best was the Fred MacMurray oater At Gunpoint for Allied Artists in 1955. He did direct the 1930 version of The Last of the Duanes (the George O’Brien one, not Tom Mix’s). The screenplay of Devil’s Canyon was by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan from a story by Bennett Cohen and Norton S Parker. Brennan wrote 110 episodes of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, so deserves some respect from us Westernistas, and also contributed to Union Pacific and Branded. Cohen and Parker were B-Western specialists. All in all, in fact, Devil’s Canyon is very ‘B’.

Director Werker

There’s an over-neat happy-ever-after ending which does nothing to add to the plausibility of the tale. No, e-pards, sorry to say it but this one is a bit of a dud. Brian Garfield called it “a static set-bound meller, slow and dreary” and I can’t disagree with that judgement, I fear, much as I would like to, being a bit of a Dale fan on the quiet (Wells Fargo was one of my favorite series on TV as a boy). 1953 was a superb year for Westerns but this one, well, ...

Winner of Silliest Studio Still, 1953
 
This was was runner-up:
 
 

 
 

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your review,Jeff and also the history lesson regarding Pearl Hart-too bad
    they never made a movie about her exploits. Very interesting photo of Pearl especially her Western attire.

    As for Alfred Werker his masterpiece as far as Westerns go was THE LAST POSSE,I
    searched for it among your back pages but could not find it.
    Also worth checking out is the grim,Noirish REBEL IN TOWN.

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    1. Yes, Rebel in Town is quite a good little noir Western. See https://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.com/2014/07/rebel-in-town-united-artists-1955.html
      I don't remember The Last Posse. I must look it out, though I am not that keen on Broderick Crawford in Westerns.
      Jeff

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  2. Yes, I agree with the assessment. I watched it quite recently and the biggest problem for me is that is set-bound and static once they arrive at the prison.

    Virginia Mayo was also in (and very good in) "FORT DOBBS" with Clint Walker in 1958.
    I support John's recommendation of those other 2 Werker westerns, especially "THE LAST POSSE".

    True there was no film made about Pearl Hart but a 1960 episode of "TALES OF WELLS FARGO" (Dale again) was titled 'Pearl Hart' in which she was played by Beverly Garland. So, not totally forgotten.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I like Fort Dobbs too.
      Sometimes these Wild West characters did turn up in TV shows.
      Jeff

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