Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Night Passage (1957)

Earlier this month Toby wrote about NIGHT PASSAGE at 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.

2020 Update: This film is now available in a beautiful Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. My review of the Blu-ray may be read here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, your excellent post has me feeling like a real slacker, since my Night Passage post sits in Wordpress half-finished.

I've come to enjoy Duryea's performance here, mainly due to something you pointed out — Murphy's delight in getting under his skin.

I also agree that the women's parts are underdeveloped and seem to exist solely to serve the plot (hostage, lunch maker), but Elaine Stewart and Dianne Foster make the most of those roles. I've always been in a minority with these movies, in that I think the women's roles are often very good — but I'm typically responding more to the performance than the part as written.

Glad to see people willing to move past their Mann hangups and appreciate Night Passage for the strong Universal Western that it is.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Laura and Toby, you both know my view on the reality of women's roles in Westerns generally. But I'd say these two are not the strongest--especially with Elaine Stewart it's more laid out in the exposition than felt. So I partly agree with Laura except that I think of the two Dianne Foster's character is the better realized and more essential. She changes affection from Murphy to Stewart (and they are seen as the natural couple from the beginning as I view it) and that's important as the action plays out in the second half of the film and especially as another dramatic element in the relationship between the brothers.

As I wrote at 50 Westerns, I like Night Passage very much and long ago stopped speaking badly of it--liking it doesn't mean liking Anthony Mann less for me and it's superficial (Toby would say snobbish) to tear it down just because he wound up not directing it. The Tin Star is stronger stylistically but it's not a more satisfying Western to me--they are about equal.

What I most like in Night Passage is the relationship of the two brothers--it's very affecting. I generally like Westerns that have a dramatic "brothers" relationship and this is one I especially like for the way it plays out. Laura hits this point well in her piece and she's right. And I'd say even though it's not a lot of scenes between them, the scenes that are there get the job done, especially the one where Stewart is singing and playing the accordion and Murphy starts tapping his foot and you know they still love each other. Along with the final shootout in the deserted mining camp, that's the high point of the movie for me.

Yes, we jumped on Duryea over at 50 Westerns. I still think he's somehow a little off form even though he's had so many roles like this one, though he's Dan Duryea and I wouldn't say I really mind it that much now that I've thought about it more. He's generally a flamboyant villain but I think the difference is this--if you think of Ride Clear of Diablo, which Laura recently wrote on and loved, in that film Duryea is flamboyant yet also relaxed and laughs a lot, while here he's a touch strident and his character has no sense of humor. Even his Winchester '73 character of Waco Johnnie Dean, one of Duryea's most ruthless and deadly characters, laughs and has moments of seeming laid-back, even in scenes where he is lethal--and that's very effective.

James Neilson may have lacked something directing Duryea but I do think he deserves credit for some things that work well in the movie and does stage and compose some scenes very well, while his inexperience is also compensated by the presence of Daniels, so that it's always a visually handsome movie and nothing to complain about there. Lots of good points for it and I too am happy if it's getting some belated appreciation for the Western it is rather than suffering from unfair comparisons and absurd complaints about Stewart's accordion playing.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Toby, I'm really looking forward to your post! And Blake, I enjoyed your comments very much indeed.

I think what Blake says about Duryea's part and his lack of humor may underline that some reactions may perhaps be more about the role itself than how Duryea chose to play it? The character in RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO had, as Blake says, humor -- and also, deep down, heart. Frankly, it was a much richer role and Duryea made the most of it. The Duryea character in NIGHT PASSAGE is just a mean son of a gun who's also a bit of a nervous wreck -- probably due to a lack of underlying confidence -- which the Utica Kid exploits. I think there was only so much that could be done with Whitey in NIGHT PASSAGE and Duryea did what he could; maybe he was also trying to create a different kind of character from what he'd done before.

As far as it not being a Mann film, sure, sometimes what's missing from a film is an issue. (It's a newer film but it always bugs me that Alec Baldwin made THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER instead of Kevin Costner. ) But, as I'm sure you both agree, for the most part it's important to look at a movie for what it has to enjoy, or as Blake says, "for the Western it is," and NIGHT PASSAGE has plenty of good stuff. Truth to tell, despite its flaws I liked NIGHT PASSAGE more than THE TIN STAR. :)

Best wishes,

2:44 PM  
Blogger Dave Enkosky said...

I just saw this movie for the first time recently and loved it. Of course, I'll watch anything with Duryea.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

"The Duryea character in NIGHT PASSAGE is just a mean son of a gun who's also a bit of a nervous wreck -- probably due to a lack of underlying confidence -- which the Utica Kid exploits."

You know, Laura, this makes more sense than anything else I've read about the way Duryea played this. Really good insight and I'll take it back to the movie next time. In the back of my mind as we've talked about this, a part of me has felt maybe we should give Duryea more credit that his approach to it was deliberated. Everyone who discussed this over at 50 Westerns, including me, did so in context of praising Duryea as an actor we all love and admire.

There was something special about him and had to be a challenge to play variations of the same bad guy so often and individualize each character, which he did do well (as you point out the Whitey of RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO had heart, unlike many of the others).

When he had the opportunity, Duryea could readily play a completely sympathetic character. I was reminded of this watching THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX last night, where Duryea impresses so strongly in a powerhouse ensemble cast playing a role so different than the way one thinks of him most of the time.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your feedback, Blake, I appreciate it!

I just added THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX to my Netflix queue. I've never seen that one and it sounds interesting, especially as I enjoy aviation films.

Best wishes,

1:20 PM  
Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

I'm glad you finally got to see this one Laura! I love all things Jimmy Stewart so I know I'm a bit biased but I too loved the brother chemistry in this film. "Night Passage" is a good little western and I alwayys enjoy when Stewart get his acordian into a film.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Paul! I really enjoyed it.

I'm glad you mentioned the accordion as since seeing the film I have read a couple reviews which were very critical of the use of the accordion, with the attitude it was self-indulgent, should have been excluded, etc. I really enjoyed it and found it very appropriate, and I'm frankly baffled by the negativity. Music has often been important in Westerns, whether the Sons of the Pioneers in Ford Westerns or the jailhouse singing in RIO BRAVO, and of course there were many singing cowboys, and music on the trail was also a historic reality of the West.

The music was used to illuminate Stewart's character, to help him connect with the DeWilde character, and was a key element in a late scene with the brothers. The accordion itself was also an important factor in a shootout!

So thanks for the opening to share some thoughts in that regard, Paul!

Best wishes,

6:50 PM  
Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

I can't imagine anyone being critical of Jimmy using his musical talents. Like you mentioned, cowboys always seem to pull out their guitars or harmonicas and play. Jimmy had talent with an accordian and I think it makes a nice touch. It's not like they tried to sell a soundtrack full of Stewart accordian songs. (But if they did I would buy it for sure.)

9:47 AM  

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