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Night Passage

Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // March 10, 2020
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 26, 2020 | E-mail the Author
Night Passage (1957) is a beautiful-looking but seriously flawed Western starring James Stewart. It's main claim to fame is that it was not directed by Anthony Mann, with whom Stewart had collaborated on a series of seminal Westerns (and other films) throughout the 1950s. Mann was supposed to direct Night Passage but he disliked the script and the casting of co-star Audie Murphy. Mann and Stewart quarreled, Mann quit the project, and TV director James Neilson replaced him. Reportedly, Stewart never spoke to Mann again.

Mann's complaints proved warranted, but Night Passage sure is pretty to look at. It was one of the first produced in the Technirama widescreen process. Like VistaVision, the 35mm camera negative ran through the camera horizontally rather than vertically, exposing eight perforations-width frames rather than four perfs high, adding a slight anamorphic squeeze. This effectively made the image twice as sharp as CinemaScope, and even more than that for cropped widescreen movies. Originally, the large-frame negative was reduced to regular 35mm ‘scope prints for theaters, but later on Super Technirama 70 allowed for sparkling 70mm prints that really impressed audiences.

For home video formats like Blu-ray, new masters can be derived from the original camera negative, resulting in very impressive, super-sharp and vivid transfers. Night Passage may be flawed as a movie, but it's worth seeing just for the transfer.

Borden Chase's screenplay, adapted from Norman A. Fox's novel, tells a confusing story with too many characters, partly because it's trying to set up a couple of plot twists for the climax. Grant McLaine (Stewart) is en route to an end-of-track rail-building camp in Colorado. Along the way, Grant rescues a young boy, Joey (Brandon deWilde) being beaten by bad guy Concho (Robert J. Wilke). Why this is happening is never entirely clear. In any case, Grant arrives to find the workers and their wives ready to bolt unless their overdue payroll arrives soon.

Tycoon Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) explains to Grant that the payroll has been robbed three times already, and suggests rather than locking the shipment aboard the train's safe, that Grant hide the $10,000 in cash on his person, undercover. Security man Kurth (Hugh Beaumont) thinks this is a bad idea, but reluctantly goes along with the plan.

On their way through the mountains to the camp, outlaws led by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) stop the train but are unable to find the $10,000 in cash, which Grant slips into a cardboard lunchbox belonging to Joey. However, Joey turns out to be a friend of the Utica Kid, and along with Kimball's wife, Verna (Elaine Stewart), everyone heads to their hideaway, an abandoned mining camp.

The earlier Stewart-Mann Westerns all told strong stories largely through the eyes of Stewart's character, and one of the big problems with Night Passage is that the perspective is more neutral third-person, with Grant ambling through as events unfold. Stewart himself had grown weary of playing the psychologically dark and troubled characters of the Mann films, preferring to play cleancut, family audience-friendly ones. In Night Passage, Grant's main companion is an accordion on which he frequently plays two songs written by composer Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington: "Follow the River" and, more annoyingly, "You Can't Get Far without a Railroad," a novelty piece that, sung by Jimmy, even works its way into the plot. The story goes that Stewart was an accomplished accordion player and was anxious to show off his skills, but the narrative stops dead for these marginal musical interludes.

Three weak performances further damage the picture. Dan Duryea, often a fine actor, all but shouts his way through the picture. Diane Foster, as the Kid's girlfriend, is very good but former MGM starlet Elaine Stewart just doesn't have the chops for this kind of Western, and seems too contemporary in this setting.

But's Audie Murphy who really drags things down and, in retrospect, is miscast. The highly-decorated World War II veteran was a limited actor though capable of good work in more black-and-white type roles. In Night Passage he seems adrift, as if unable to get a handle on the character, a part darker and more morally ambiguous than he was used to playing. (Spoilers) About two-thirds of the way through the film, it's revealed the Kid and Grant are actually brothers, but visually they look anything but. Stewart was much older, a good foot-and-a-half taller, and lanky, while Murphy was younger, shorter, and more compact. This lack of believability was one of Mann's main objections to the project; other Stewart-Mann veterans, such as actor Arthur Kennedy, would have been more nuanced and acceptable.

Perhaps most tellingly is the underutilized Jay C. Flippen, who played memorable, fully-dimensional parts in earlier Mann-Stewart films, but here plays the generic railroad tycoon, a colorless character simply offering Stewart's Grant a job, nothing more. Indeed, few of the roles have any shading: the rail workers and their wives are little more than a bellyaching mob (often speaking with terrible faux Irish accents) and throughout the film relationships of characters to one another is peculiarly murky, sometimes to hide plot twists that are neither all that surprising nor worth the confusion.

Video & Audio

Night Passage's saving grace is the excellent transfer of 2.35:1 Technirama elements, which show off the format to great advantage. Faces exhibit more detail, and the Durango, Colorado locations are visually spectacular, especially footage aboard the steam locomotive high in a Rockies, a narrow-gauge line (Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad) apparently still in operation. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio mono, is similarly good, and supported by optional English subtitles. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to a somewhat meandering but fact-filled audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan.

Parting Thoughts

Not bad on its own terms, but a disappointing footnote to the remarkable James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations, Night Passage compensates somewhat through its sparkling use of Technirama, and is still worth seeing. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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