"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Night Passage (Universal, 1957)

The Mann/Stewart Westerns: the end of the affair

 James Stewart
Anthony Mann
We reviewed The Man from Laramie (Columbia, 1955), the last of the five Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns, in December last year (click the link to read that).   I think it was the greatest of them. In some ways it was a synthesis, a deliberate attempt to combine and sum up all the features that had made the others so good. Mann himself said, “I wanted to recapitulate, somehow, my five years with Jimmy Stewart. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysm.”

Paroxysm, eh? I don’t know about that but certainly the by now classic Mann/Stewart themes are there (driven man-with-a-mission, tough-guy Stewart, wild terrain and so on) and there are also echoes: Arthur Kennedy pushes Donald Crisp off his horse while riding a ledge just as Robert Ryan did to Stewart in The Naked Spur; Kennedy and Stewart shoot it out on a mountain top as Stephen McNally and Stewart had done in Winchester’73; there are others.

It was the most violent of the Westerns and though tame by today’s post-Peckinpah (or Tarantino...) standards was shockingly so for 1955. But the post-Second World War audience had, many of them, known worse in real life and were ready to accept the realism. And it brought the Westerns into line with Mann’s noir and war films.

Stewart proved his toughness by doing his own stunts, rolling under spooked horses’ hooves in the fist-fight, being dragged through a camp fire. It made the character of Will Lockhart more gutsy and physical than the Stewart heroes in the others.

As I said in my review, the picture does have its weaknesses, notably in the poor acting of Donald Crisp, Alex Nicol and, sad to say, Arthur Kennedy. Poor acting and poor writing of their parts.

But Laramie remains the high-point and culmination of the Mann/Stewart collaboration.

Of course, Mann made other Westerns without Stewart and Stewart made others without Mann. It must be said that while Mann directed some fine ones (The Tin Star with Henry Fonda in 1957; Man of the West with Gary Cooper in 1958) Stewart did not fare so well afterwards: the pretty forgettable Night Passage in 1957, the Western family saga Shenandoah in 1965 and the quite shockingly dreadful The Rare Breed in 1966. Yes, he worked with John Ford but only later, on frankly lower-quality pictures such as the ho-hum Two Rode Together with Widmark, the over-talky and studio-bound black & white Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn, in which he really only did a hammy cameo (as Wyatt Earp). Firecreek wasn't too bad but it wasn’t till his last Western, when he was 68 and suffering from deafness, that he excelled again, though in a very small part, in the magnificent The Shootist.

But anyway, let’s talk about Night Passage because that was to have been another Mann/Stewart collaboration. And indeed, with Aaron Rosenberg producing, Borden Chase writing it, William Daniels at the camera, impressive locations, Dan Duryea as the villain and with Jay C Flippen, Jack Elam and Robert J Wilke all lined up in the cast, it looked to be quite simply the sixth in the series.
Good artwork this time

But it was not to be. Mann did some preproduction work and might even have directed a few of the early scenes but Stewart and Mann seem to have fallen out. The whys and wherefores are not entirely clear but apparently Stewart was determined to incorporate some features which Mann felt (as it turned out rightly) were, well, shall we say inappropriate. Mann said later, “The story was so incoherent that I said the audience wouldn’t understand any of it. But Jimmy was very set on that film. He had to play the accordion and do a bunch of stunts that actors adore. He didn’t care about the script whatever and I abandoned the production. The picture was a total failure and Jimmy has always held it against me.”

It was pretty poor, Mann was right there, though it wasn't a "total failure". Stewart plays and sings. He ought not to have. Mann’s replacement James Nielson was an unknown and directed only three feature-film Westerns, mostly doing TV work. He really just let Stewart have his head. Unfortunately. Audie Murphy as Stewart’s outlaw kid brother was willing and earnest (as always) but it wasn't a very convincing role. Duryea chewed the scenery in a totally over-the-top way, as he was wont to do. There’s a hokey kid for Stewart to impress (Brandon de Wilde, a bit more grown up now than the whiny brat in Shane and not too bad in fact). The women are token, honestly.
It was a mistake, Jimmy
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times summed up the cast pretty well when he wrote, "The Utica Kid of Audie Murphy is a dew-dappled, boastful little tough, and the chief railroad robber of Dan Duryea is a vainglorious, comical scum. Jack Elam's Shotgun is a scoundrel, Robert Wilke's Concho is a cur and even Brandon de Wilde's Joey Adams has a streak of the outlaw in him. While he throws in his lot with Mr. Stewart, he keeps a soft spot in his heart for the Utica Kid. Likewise, the chief railroad builder, whom Jay C. Flippen plays, is a bit of a louse, and both the females (Dianne Foster and Elaine Stewart) two-time their men."

Yes, the movie does have its points. There's a good bit of action. The Colorado scenery is great (and by the way if you can get down into the Centennial State, that Durango/Silverton railway up through the gorge is quite something, ça vaut le détour, as the Michelin guide used to say). I also like the stirring Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington score (once you get past Jimmy’s accordion).
Audie. He did his best.

But it bombed at the box office and was panned by the critics. You just get the feeling that if Anthony Mann had directed it, it could have been another in the excellent series. As it was, Night Passage was little more than a star-vehicle 'just another' Western.
Same hat, same coat, same rifle. But the magic isn't there



  1. I had read your thoughts on Night Passage some time ago, but refrained from jumping into the fray as I hadn't seen it.

    Until tonight, that is. What can I say... Lord, I loved this movie! We have to agree to disagree (of course, mileage may vary...).

    A couple of things: it looked gorgeous, and the score was great. Murphy was never better, and I think de Wilde was a great talent. By the time Stewart was loading his leading lady into a mining car, I knew this picture had everything! Best of all, Stewart wasn't haunted, brooding, crazed...

    I think the reason this film gets a bad rapp is because there is an inherent sweetness to it absent from the Mann pictures. The tenderness between de Wilde and Stewart, or Murphy and Stewart, would never play in a Mann film. That undercurrent of sweetness is just not, sadly, part of the current zeitgeist, and we have no time for it. A shame really, because it is this quality that sets Night Passage apart and makes it special. (Heresy, I know, but I prefer it to the Mann films!)

    I was just so impressed by the polish of this movie, the visuals, the deft playing (heck, I like Dureya), and the whole emotional tenor of the thing. A true Western gem!

  2. Hi Bob

    Your enthusiasm for this picture has made me wonder if I misjudged it, or judged it too harshly. I actually saw it again last week (it was on TV) and I did soften a little. But I still hold to my view that it is weaker than the great Anthony Mann movies.

    I too love Dan Duryea but there is no denying that he was a dreadful ham. Audie was a much better actor than he gave himself credit for (as a look at The Unforgiven will show) but I didn't think he was plausible as the kid outlaw brother. Jay C Flippen was reliable but hardly the railroad baron. And Stewart let himself down, i thought, with all that accordion playing and hokey charm. He was so much better as the driven man-with-a-mission of the Mann films.

    I agree that Night Passage is visually fine.

    As you say, we will agree to disagree. Life would be very boring if we all thought the same!!


  3. There's a story that just before filming a particular scene in some picture or other Bette Davis said to the director or the producer or somebody: "Either Steiner goes up these stairs or I do." This is the picture Tiomkin takes the train up the mountain. It was doing OK already with the gorgeous photography but the music makes it orgasmic. I keep looking for a Youtube clip of just this scene to watch it over and over like I do the wagon ride in High Noon. The music is so brilliant in both. I used to love this film as a kid. It must have been the music and the photography (even on a black and white TV) and Stewart's anguished cry, "Not the kid!" when he thinks Murphy is going to shoot him. So many films that made an impression it turned out years later it must have been the music. Seeing Night Passage again years later it was disappointing. It's the script: it's just not grown up. Stewart sings a song to bring his brother back from 'evil' who redeems himself by dying. Murphy was hardly 'evil' in the first place. Nor is Dan Duryea. I was always a James Stewart fan but you have to wonder about some of his choices. I also wonder why he could hardly put a foot wrong in the 1950s but it all seemed to nosedive in the 1960s.

    1. Ah yes, so many movies we loved as kids but when we see them again as adults...
      Mind, some do remain great throughout one's life. I saw The Magnificent Seven on its release when I was 12, thought it the greatest movie in the universe, and still do.
      You are certainly right about the music: it can make or break a picture.
      And you are right about James Stewart's Westerns: after the Anthony Mann ones they nosedived in quality.

  4. Here's a thought. Have you noticed a striking lack of chemistry or passion between the Stewart character and the female lead in almost all of these Mann westerns? In Bend Of The River he gets the girl after the Kennedy character is killed more at her father's insistence than obvious interest from her. The lack of interest from the woman in The Man From Laramie is almost insulting. In Night Passage the girl could hardly be less interested. In The Naked Spur Janet Leigh shows admirable loyalty to Robert Ryan before settling for Stewart seemingly out of sympathy. In The Far Country this time he's the one settling for the tomboy freckle face second best. What - if anything - is going on here? At least in Winchester 73 Shelley Winters shows a bit more genuine passion along the lines Leigh showed for Ryan. Even Randolph Scott looking past his sell by date gets more convincing love interest almost at the end of his career. That scene in Seven Men From Now where he's bedding down for the night under a wagon and Gail Russell is inches away above him and they both want each other so badly must be one of the most erotic moments in all westerns. And in the last shot of The Tall T there's real feeling when Maureen O'Sullivan tentatively reaches for his waist and loses her nerve until he puts his arm around her saying, "Come on. It's going to be a nice day". You know these two have got a happy and probably long marriage ahead of them. Paul

    1. Yes, I think that's very astute. I never really thought about it before but you are right, there is never any spark between Stewart and the female lead in those Mann Westerns. Perhaps it was because he always played such a single-minded, driven man, almost deranged in his determination to do what he set out to do.

  5. Hi Jeff. Was it just weak casting? Is that why Shelley Winters and Janet Leigh standout? Joanne Dru is pretty good in Thunder Bay overcoming a silly script but that could be my personal taste. But then you've got June Alysson in Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command. Nice girl but she makes Doris Day look like Mae West. And in Night Passage - Audie Murphy as 'evil'. EVIL? Audie Murphy? He couldn't even look unintentionally malicious in a high school picture. Did Stewart have some kind of blind spot about the casting? I am guessing it's Stewart not Mann because in Man Of The West it's Julie London for a strong female lead and the Tin Star isn't obviously weak in that department. Paul

    1. Yes, you could be right.
      Though I'm not sure how much direct input Stewart had in casting the picture.

    2. "....Audie Murphy as 'evil'. EVIL? Audie Murphy? He couldn't even look unintentionally malicious in a high school picture" I'd have to look up Joe Gant in his HS yearbook. Audie's portrayal of Gant, the mysterious gunman, in No Name on the Bullet is chilling and I would vote as being in the Top 10 of western villains.

  6. Just a remark about the Durango-Silverton train. The track was built in 1882 for the Denver & Rio Grande Railway - giving its name to the western narrating its story and treated by Jeff as outstanding with 3 revolvers - and it follows the canyon of the Las animas perdidas - what a name!- river, not the Royal Gorge which is an Arkansas river canyon close to Canon - don't now how to type the tilde on the n, sorry - City still in Colorado, famous for its suspension bridge among other attractions. The Durango-Silverton train is seen in many movies, Viva Zapata and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among the most famous, Durango being simply nicknamed the Hollywood of the Rockies... An other spectacular train in the area is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, from Antonito, Colorado, to the very atmospheric Chama in New Mexico, also starring in various films, the most recent one being Hostiles.JM