Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An expensive Universal Western with grand Colorado locations and big stars, Night Passage
comes close to being a classic, but not close enough. An excellent story builds up to
an exciting midpoint, but corny thematics and a tendency to indulge James Stewart's 'family
entertainment' values takes a toll.
On DVD, however, it's a glorious experience, with those Technirama vistas in the high country,
much of it shot from a moving train. Savant's never seen this one widescreen until now, and
it's a bargain for Western fans.
Disgraced railroad employee Grant McClaine (James Stewart) saves young castoff Joey
Adams (Brandon De Wilde) from a beating by a thug named Concho (Robert J. Wilke). They ride into a
railroad town, and a complicated adventure. Railroad bigshot Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) hires
Grant to sneak some money up to the workers, who are threatening to quit after two payrolls have
been robbed en route, by the gang run by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea). Charlie Drew, a waitress in town
(Dianne Foster) and Verna Kimball, Ben's wife (Elaine Stewart) both have an interest in Grant but
for different reasons: Verna is bored in her marriage, and Charlie wants to sneak up to Whitey's
hideout, to get an outlaw named The Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) to marry her. Grant takes the job,
but the train is robbed anyway, and the payroll money ends up in Joey's shoebox, right in the middle of
the thieves, who have also kidnapped Verna. Grant arrives to clean house, but more complications appear:
he and The Utica Kid have a common past.
The tendency among Western addicts is to say that Night Passage could have been great if
Anthony Mann had directed it, but after a long list of collaborations, James Stewart and Mann had outgrown each other by this time and
each moved on to bigger shows. In the second half of the fifties, Stewart split his time between acting for
top directors like Alfred Hitchcock, and making his own pictures that tended toward conservative content.
Even though Mann reportedly passed on the film for script reasons, the lively story has a number of
similarities with his last Western, the strangely pessimistic
Man of the West - a criminal gang of misfits
preying on decent society, and a hero who finds himself in a no man's land between respectability and
outlawry. Chances are that with its 'dark' title, this show started out as a
more serious story, only to develop in a wholesome direction with the combined participation of Stewart and Audie
Most of Night Passage is smoothly structured, especially the introduction of the characters and
their interesting relationships. Everyone Stewart meets is tied in with the crooks in one way or another, and
half of them are hiding their true natures. Elaine Stewart is cleverly positioned as a kidnap victim who was
once engaged to the hero. Hugh Beaumont has a nice bit as a railroad detective who gets locked in a boxcar just
when he thinks he's going to foil a train robbery. 1
The clever script provides a number of neat surprises and clever ironies.
But first-time film director James Neilson, who previously worked on Alfred Hitchcock's TV show and later
became a Disney house director, doesn't seem to have been strong enough to keep his powerful stars focused on
The best-introduced character is Audie Murphy's Utica Kid, who everyone talks about for half an hour before
he's finally revealed running
after a speeding train. Murphy made a lot of klunker movies, and a number of cheap Westerns, but
his pairing with Stewart in this picture shows him trying for something better. He's both likeable and capable,
overcoming his limitations in the acting department. Of course, he always carried an appeal for men who knew
him as the most-decorated GI of WW2 ... if that babyfaced short guy was the USA's toughest warrior, then we
all have a chance.
Night Passage has some excellent exterior vistas (the views from the moving train are a pleasure) and a
nicely-orchestrated spectrum of good guys and bad guys. Audie Murphy's smart-talking tainted hero is matched by
Dan Duryea's greedier outlaw boss. Veteran villains Robert J. Wilke and Jack Elam both do what they do in
every picture, get blasted down, but we get to see Wilke walk atop and climb over a very rickety-looking train
as it chugs through a steep mountain pass. He started as a stuntman, and apparently had to keep it up to
make a living.
What lets Night Passage passage down is the corn factor. I'm showing my prejudices, but it's almost as
if James Stewart reached into what was a morally conflicted story and cleaned it up with a bar of soap. The
in very compromised situations, but there's barely a kiss or an embrace in the picture. The railroad
workers are all idiotic complainers, fighting over the late payroll and henpecked by
their wives, namely Ellen Corby. The only female with some normal ideas in her head is the gritty muleskinner
played by Olive Carey, a grandmother type who openly suggests to Stewart that he drop by when it gets cold
in the winter, so they can keep each other warm!
Both Stewart and Murphy's characters are typical Borden Chase western heroes, as in the Stewart-Mann films, who
exist in a social limbo between absolute virtue and despicable villainy. Stewart plays his defamed character
as if he's expecting to be vindicated any moment, thus robbing the character of its depth. Murphy is a
full-blown baddie with a heart of gold, who probably secretly wants to reform but knows there's no hope for him.
His last-minute noble gesture, changing sides and coming to the rescue, completes his character arc, but isn't
well-enough directed to make a maximum impact - we're expecting just such a twist. The great borrower of classic
Western situations, Sam Peckinpah, possibly had this conclusion in mind when he filmed the end of Ride the
High Country. In that film, Randolph Scott's isolation and regret are more deeply felt; when he rides to the
rescue, it's a glorious atonement for a real Western hero.
The politics we see are rather simplistic. The railroad may be the only employer in the territory, but the story places too much emphasis on Stewart's
desire to square himself with it. As with other Stewart Westerns, big business and the Army can do no wrong.
The railroad boss may be a cuckolded dunderhead who hires losers like Hugh Beaumont and accuses good men like
Stewart of thievery, but Stewart remains loyal. The way he grabs at the offer of a lousy railroad job at the end,
isn't very flattering.
As soon as a certain relationship is revealed in the story, we have to listen to too many Author's Messages:
Murphy and Stewart do a lot of lame talking about Good and Evil and people's souls. Stewart becomes the protector
of the womenfolk and the okay kid played by Brandon De Wilde, and the complicated network of relationships
built up earlier in the story is dropped, with several loose ends left untied.
But the most obvious gripe is Stewart's constant singing and playing of the accordion, as if he were envious
of crossover performers like Burl Ives. He sang once before, briefly, in an
MGM musical, but here he keeps pulling out that damn accordion and warbling inane ditties like 'It takes all
kinds to make a railroad', or something to that effect. It's supposed to be how he makes his living, but you
get the idea that Stewart is trying to use his Glenn Miller association to pretend he plays another
instrument. The show stops dead every time he sings, and I can imagine audiences cheering the closeup that
shows the instrument ablaze in a cabin fire. But I guess it's better than seeing him play a trombone atop
a railroad flatcar.
Otherwise, the music is tops, with an exciting Dimitri Tiomkin score ringing across the landscape. Short at
90 minutes, the story's interesting elements only come together for a few minutes, before being resolved with a
predictable gunfight. My remarks above should be taken as reasons why Night Passage isn't a classic
Western. It is still a very entertaining one, especially for those who like their shoot 'em ups on the
lighter side. I certainly recommend it as strongly as any of the 'respected' Anthony Mann sagas.
Universal's DVD of Night Passage is a beauty, where we can finally appreciate the Technirama photograpy of
William Daniels at its widescreen best. The picture has a great texture and sharp look. It's the first movie
in Technirama, which was essentially squeezed VistaVision, and the main titles interestingly mimic the
Technirama logo. The sound is also very clear, great for Tiomkin fans and not so good for trying to ignore
There's a trailer (which gives away the film's main plot secret) but no other extras on this bargain-priced disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Passage rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 5, 2003
1. The deputies hiding in a train car gag
is a nice permutation of the same situation used in Cat Ballou, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid, and The Wild Bunch. How robber Dan Duryea neutralizes their threat, is very amusing.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson