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Sometimes a picture is more interesting for what it might have been than for what it actually is. James Neilson's Night Passage (1957), a fairly standard-issue 1950s Western starring James Stewart, doesn't set the world on fire, but it may have been a different story - quite literally - if its original director, Anthony Mann, hadn't parted ways with Stewart over what he considered to be a poor screenplay. The rift between Mann and Stewart nearly shattered a close friendship, and actually did end a groundbreaking big screen collaboration. The two men parted ways, and didn't speak to each other again until several years after the release of Night Passage.
Stewart plays Grant McLaine, a railroad detective. McLaine's boss (Jay C.Flippen) is starting to suspect that his longtime employee is behind a series of train robberies, so he gives him one last chance to prove he's on the up and up. Unfortunately, the train McLaine is assigned to guard is once again robbed, and he's taken hostage by a gang of desperados. The gang's leader, Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), is especially pleased with a new sharp-shooting recruit called The Utica Kid (Audie Murphy.) What Harbin doesn't know is that The Kid is actually McLaine's younger brother, a situation that leads, not unexpectedly, to a final, twist-filled shootout.
Mann and Stewart, of course, were responsible for such films as Winchester 73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952 ), The Naked Spur (1953), and The Man from Laramie (1955), all of which rank among the greatest Westerns ever made. Those pictures are driven by a certain moral ambiguity, and, in some instances, even a bit of sadomasochism, two elements that are decidedly missing from Night Passage. Mann had originally agreed to direct Night Passage when Stewart offered it to him, but wound up dropping it in favor of The Tin Star (1957), a psychological Western drama starring Henry Fonda that was far more in keeping with his previous efforts. Certainly, Fonda's character is a more complex creation than Stewart's wronged railroad worker.
Although several industry insiders told Stewart that he, too, should abandon Night Passage once Mann backed out, he continued full-steam with the project, possibly out of stubbornness. But it may not have been quite that simple. Some people contend that Stewart wanted more control of the film, and only offered it to Mann because he knew he'd turn it down. Then he recruited newcomer James Neilson, who would willingly bend to his vision. Still others have suggested that Stewart so looked forward to performing two songs in the movie - "Follow the River" and "You Can't Get Far Without a Railroad" - that he simply refused to let the opportunity pass! It seems likely that Mann wouldn't have stopped the movie dead in its tracks to indulge Stewart in a couple of accordion solos.
Just as unexpected as Stewart's musical interludes was the casting of Audie Murphy as a murderous young tough. Up to this point in his film career, the actor usually played the traditional hero in such films as Destry (1955) and Walk the Proud Land (1956) but Night Passage introduced a sinister side of the baby-faced actor, prompting one critic to write, "You never can tell about Audie Murphy these days. Just recently he turned in the worst comedy performance of the year - in Joe Butterfly. Now he has been cast as a villain and the new look suits him a lot better." Not all his fans would agree but Murphy would go on to play an even more malevolent figure - a hired killer - in the 1959 Western, No Name on the Bullet.
Night Passage took a quick dive at the box office, although the trade paper, Variety, was surprisingly receptive, calling it "a taut, well-made, sometimes fascinating Western." Since Stewart's previous film, The Spirit of St. Louis, also failed to sell tickets, he suddenly found himself in the strange position of needing a hit. He would get one and then some with his next film - a little Alfred Hitchcock mind-bender called Vertigo (1958.)
Directed by: James Neilson
Screenplay: Borden Chase (based on a story by Norman A. Fox)
Cinematography: William Daniels
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editing: Sherman Todd
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy
Set Decoration: Oliver Emert and Russell A. Gausman
Costumes: Bill Thomas
Makeup: Bud Westmore
Cast: James Stewart (Grant McLaine), Audie Murphy (The Utica Kid), Dan Duryea (Whitey Harbin), Dianne Foster (Charlotte Drew), Elaine Stewart (Vera Kimball), Brandon De Wilde (Joey Adams), Jay C. Flippen (Ben Kimball), Herbert Anderson (Will Renner).
by Paul Tatara