Friday, April 10, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Night Passage (1957) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

James Stewart and Audie Murphy star in NIGHT PASSAGE (1957), recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

I first saw NIGHT PASSAGE in 2013, and while I enjoyed it, I can't say I remembered much about it several years later. Despite it not being especially memorable, I enjoyed the movie all over again on this viewing. Spending an hour and a half with this cast, filmed against scenic Colorado and Lone Pine backdrops, works quite well for me, even if it's a somewhat lesser-tier film among Stewart's Western credits.

Stewart plays Grant McLaine, a previously fired railroad employee who is rehired by Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen). The payroll can't get through to the railroad camp, as it's continually robbed by Whitey (Dan Duryea), and Kimball entrusts Grant with the task of sneaking the money to the camp undercover.

Complications arise as Grant's younger brother Lee (Murphy), now known as the Utica Kid, rides with Whitey's outlaw gang. The upright Grant and decidedly less virtuous Lee also tangle over their feelings for pretty Charlie (Diane Foster) and an orphaned young boy named Joey (Brandon De Wilde of SHANE).

Matters come to a head when Whitey kidnaps Joey along with Kimball's wife Verna (Elaine Stewart), who happens to be an old flame of Grant's. Grant is determined to rescue Joey, Verna, and the payroll, which he's hidden with Joey. But which side will the Utica Kid choose?

It's customary for film fans to mourn that this film wasn't directed by Stewart's longtime collaborator Anthony Mann, as originally intended, but I prefer to look at what was, rather than what might have been.

The movie was written by Borden Chase, based on a novel by Norman A. Fox. Chase also wrote my favorite of the Mann-Stewart collaborations, BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), and while NIGHT PASSAGE isn't quite on that level, it has much of the same feel.  Though it might be somewhat derivative, for me that familiarity is a plus.

In both BEND OF THE RIVER and NIGHT PASSAGE, Stewart works to redeem himself among a community -- Oregon settlers in BEND OF THE RIVER, railroaders in NIGHT PASSAGE; it's critical that he overcomes enemies to get supplies to the settlers in the first film, while the railroad company is counting on him to come through with the payroll.

Both times he also deals with anger and hurt feelings regarding a man with whom he had previously had an important relationship, and in each case there's a woman caught in the middle. In fact, here Borden borrows more heavily from his screenplay for WINCHESTER '73 (1950), in which Stewart also had a most troublesome brother.

Stewart's Grant has some dark edges which occasionally peek through, particularly when he's dealing with those he's loved and lost, but on the whole he's a sunnier character than in the Mann films, given to playing the accordion and singing even in times of stress. It's a bit of a relief seeing him play a character who's somewhat less troubled this time around, though his character has been through difficult times.

Stewart is so laid back, and Murphy so compelling, that it's when Murphy rides into the frame, at the 35-minute mark, that the film's energy level kicks into high gear. The more I see of Murphy's work, the more I think he was underrated. While Stewart is excellent as always, it's Murphy who makes the picture with his compelling performance as the troubled and conflicted Lee.

Murphy is, of course, solidly backed by the terrific Duryea, his costar in the top-drawer RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954) a few years previously. Duryea, who was also Stewart's costar in WINCHESTER '73 and THUNDER BAY (1953), plays a less nuanced character here than in any of those films, but he's still always entertaining to watch.

I like Elaine Stewart (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, ESCORT WEST) a great deal; she's interesting here as a tough yet elegant woman of questionable loyalties, though it's hard to recognize her at first with upswept blonde hair instead of her usual dark locks. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to distinguish her from the dark-haired Foster. Both women's roles could have stood considerable fleshing out; their back stories and motivations are too vague, and while the film runs a well-paced 90 minutes, I would have stretched it a little longer to allow for more character development.

Foster, whose other films included THE BROTHERS RICO (1957), MONKEY ON MY BACK (1957), and THE DEEP SIX (1958), died last summer; I didn't learn of her passing until the TCM Remembers video came out in mid-December 2019.

A plus factor is the film's deep supporting cast; any Western which has Robert J. Wilke and Jack Elam as villains works for me. Wonderful faces like Olive Carey, Ellen Corby, Herbert Anderson, Hugh Beaumont, Paul Fix, and Donald Curtis are also on hand.

The film also has some gorgeous location photography, filmed by William Daniels in Technirama, the first film shot in that process. The railroad scenes were shot in Colorado, while a horse chase near the end of the film suddenly switches the movie's locale to the much different looking, distinctive Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, California. Unfortunately the film has some quite obvious soundstage exteriors, process shots, and day-for-night shooting mixed in with the excellent exterior filming.

The film's score was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, which also gives the film a little something "extra."

The movie was directed by James Neilson, who throughout the '50s and early '60s mostly worked in episodic television. In the '60s he worked for Disney on films such as the Hayley Mills movies SUMMER MAGIC (1963) and THE MOON-SPINNERS (1964). He also directed a minor yet very good late Robert Taylor film, RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER (1967).

All in all, while I don't rank this as one of either Stewart or Murphy's very best films, it has much to recommend it and is quite an enjoyable time for a Westerns fan, presented by Kino Lorber looking and sounding its very best. The Blu-ray is lovely, and I would further note it's an improvement over the DVD I watched in 2013, which I recall being oddly "squished" in certain scenes despite being letterboxed.

Extras include a commentary track by Westerns specialist Toby Roan (50 Westerns From the 50s), the trailer, and a gallery of a half dozen additional trailers for Stewart films available from Kino Lorber

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

While it is not the best film for either of our stars, I have a deep affection for Night Passage. I would sing Tiomkin's "Follow the River" as a lullaby to my kids. I will not mention how long ago that was at this time.

Fave line is when Joey says to Grant: "Well, maybe you shouldn't drink, then you'd have six bits when you need it."

5:12 AM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Laura, your review really 'nails' it! Whilst it would have been interesting to see what Mann would have done with "NIGHT PASSAGE", I prefer, like you, to take what we have.

The film does not really compare with the Stewart-Mann westerns but I nonetheless really like it. I believe our friend, Toby Roan, feels much the same.
Stewart is always great but I agree totally with you that Audie Murphy's appearance really sets light to the film. Which I think tells us how much he was underrated.

Very fine western IMO.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad both of you feel the same way about NIGHT PASSAGE. There's something very likeable about it even if it doesn't merit the "top-drawer classic" label.

That's a great line, Caftan Woman. And I love that about you singing the song.

Jerry, I'm looking forward to hearing what Toby says in his commentary. And very interested that Murphy's entrance and performance struck you the same way. Tonight I read Glenn Erickson's new review of the film and he particularly commented on Murphy riding into the film -- fun to read that that moment was key for him too.

Thank you both for reading and sharing your thoughts!

Best wishes,

7:14 PM  

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