50 Westerns From the 50s. His post generated a lot of good conversation about the film, which is best known to some as the movie which ended the long-running collaboration of James Stewart and director Anthony Mann; Mann backed out of working on the movie in favor of THE TIN STAR (1957), and NIGHT PASSAGE was instead directed by James Neilson.
I think I'm the only person in my family who had never seen NIGHT PASSAGE, and I've been planning to finally watch it sometime this month thanks to Toby's post. And what better day to choose to watch it than Dan Duryea's birthday?!
I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this film very much. It may not be a Western classic at the level of a top film by Ford, Mann, or Boetticher, but it's a good, solid, fast-moving film with much to recommend it. The movie has a wonderful cast, and it felt a lot to me like one of my favorite "movie comfort food" Westerns, Stewart and Mann's BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). As a matter of fact, I realized after the fact that both NIGHT PASSAGE and BEND OF THE RIVER were written by Borden Chase; NIGHT PASSAGE was based on a novel by Norman Fox.
The movie starts off in slightly startling fashion with flashy opening credits that look as though they were designed for a 3-D movie. Apparently the credits were designed in the style of the Technirama logo; this was the first film shot in that process.
Stewart and Audie Murphy play brothers on opposite sides of the law. Their personalities are somewhat illustrated by their entrances: Stewart, the "good" brother, slowly ambles into a railroad camp and lackadaisically pulls out an accordion and plays a tune. The black-garbed Murphy, on the other hand, rides pell-mell toward the camera in a dashing entrance.
Murphy plays the Utica Kid, who rides with Whitey (Dan Duryea) and his gang, repeatedly robbing the railroad of its payroll money. Stewart plays Grant, a former railroad employee rehired by Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) to find a way to get the next payroll through to the roadroad camp.
Complicating matters are Ben's wife Verna (Elaine Stewart) and the Utica Kid's girl Charlie (Dianne Foster), both of whom also have a history with Grant. A young boy named Joey (Brandon DeWilde of
SHANE) also figures in the story; he had been swept up into Whitey's gang, but Grant wants to make sure the boy follows the right path in life. As Grant tells the Utica Kid late in the film, he's concerned about the boy's soul.
Matters come to a head when Whitey, the Utica Kid and the gang stop the train; unable to find the payroll, the gang kidnaps Verna for ransom. The movie comes to an end with a really well-done shootout in an interesting setting, an abandoned mining camp.
This is a very fast-moving 90 minutes. There are perhaps a couple story threads that don't really go anywhere; Charlie's character doesn't serve a lot of purpose, nor does Verna's past history with Grant. In that regard the movie might have done better to either expand on those characters more or, conversely, to whittle the narrative down by a few minutes.
I would have also liked to see a little more explanation for the Utica Kid's backstory; millions of little brothers feel put-upon but don't end up robbing trains. What happened? There's also obviously still a lot of good left in the Kid. Why?
Murphy, it must be said, is really terrific in his role. He became a very fine actor over the years, and he has excellent chemistry with Stewart. Their few scenes together are extremely well done, crackling with electricity and unspoken words, and ultimately very moving. I would have enjoyed it if they'd had even more scenes together.
Some of the good folks at 50 Westerns were disappointed by Duryea's performance in this one, but I thought he was fine, though it wasn't one of his better, more fleshed-out roles; the chemistry shared by Duryea and Murphy in RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954) is missing here, though it's fun to see the Utica Kid enjoying needling the perpetually antsy Whitey.
Elaine Stewart has a nice part as the somewhat enigmatic Verna and made me curious to know more about her character. Did she marry Ben for his money? She certainly holds her own with Whitey and the gang in admirable fashion. Dianne Foster, on the other hand, has a fairly nothing part wringing her hands over the Utica Kid and his refusal to quit the robbery business. Her main plot function seems to be to provide Joey with a boxed lunch which will figure prominently in the storyline.
The supporting cast is marvelous: Hugh Beaumont, Jack Elam, Robert J. Wilke (a really slimy villain who has it in for the little kid), Paul Fix, Olive Carey, Herbert Anderson, and Ellen Corby. I thought I might have spotted stuntman/bit player Bob Hoy, who worked on many Universal Westerns of the era, on the train but it's not listed in his credits at IMDb.
The movie was shot by William H. Daniels in Colorado and also in Bishop, California. The outdoor shots are gorgeous; unfortunately there are some jarring soundstage shots mixed in with the location work, but otherwise the movie looks beautiful. The musical score was by Dimitri Tiomkin.
I watched NIGHT PASSAGE on a DVD from the Universal Westerns Collection. It's curious to note that although the film was letterboxed, at times the picture looked squished; I suspect this has something to do with the film being in Technirama.
The movie is also available in the six-film James Stewart Westerns Collection or a four-film James Stewart Western Collection. It can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.
The movie has apparently been shown in the past on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available on the TCM website.