This is an excellent Technicolor Western from Universal-International, script by Maurice Geraghty, directed by George Sherman, from Zane Grey’s novel “Wildfire.” I like stories that challenge F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously pessimistic assertion -- you know the one: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Handsomely mounted and well acted, “Red Canyon” is an engaging, unpretentious tale about second chances that should be better known than it is. Drifter Lin Sloane (Howard Duff) and wealthy rancher’s daughter Lucy Bostel (Ann Blyth) are both intent on capturing and taming a magnificant wild stallion, Black Velvet. Lucy intends to ride the mustang in the town’s big horse race, against her father’s (George Brent) wishes and against his own prized thoroughbred.
Lin catches and corrals the mustang, and Lucy tames it. The two initially spar, then fall in love. Lucy doesn’t know it, but Sloane’s last name is really Cordt, and his father (John McIntire) leads a gang of horse thieves. The elusive Cordts are her father’s sworn enemies: they were responsible for her mother’s death years before. Lin, never a part of the gang, has spent years trying to steer clear of the old man by wandering across the Southwest and hiding under the assumed name. When Lin is outed as a Cordt, and his father and brother (Lloyd Bridges) steal Black Velvet, events move toward the inevitable showdown. Geraghty was an old-timer who wrote everything from serials to episodes of “Annie Oakley” and “Buffalo Bill Jr.” on early TV. His script for “Red Canyon” deftly streamlines Grey’s rather creaky old novel. Uncommonly thoughtful, the script draws a subtle association between the outlaw horse Black Velvet and the outlaw-in-name Lin Sloane. Duff and Blythe are charming in their starring roles. McIntire and Bridges, abetted by Denver Pyle in an early role, are fine bad guys.
Geraghty upends a cliche on its head, the old chestnut about the devout father who tries to raise an upstanding son, only to be disappointed when the boy turns bad. The evil Floyd Cordt shakes his head at his son’s sense of honesty: “The world is full of thieves and murderers. I tried to teach him, and look how he turned out.” Bunch of other familar faces in the cast too: Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, Hank Worden, James Seay, Jane Darwell, all as welcome as old friends at a reunion. The film boasts beautifully photographed outdoor scenes of Lin chasing Black Velvet over the desert and through the canyons around Kanab, Utah, and a crackling good climactic shootout that rivals any of John Ford’s, Howard Hawks’, and Sam Peckinpah’s.