Night Passage


Two brothers, one an outlaw and the other a former railroad troubleshooter in disgrace, square off. That’s the basic premise of  Night Passage.

Jimmy Stewart is the honest man who is now reduced to scratching out a living as an accordion player after letting his no-good sibling Audie Murphy escape five years previously. He gets a last chance to redeem himself when his ex-boss hires him again. The railroad payroll has been repeatedly robbed by a gang of outlaws led by The Utica Kid (Murphy) and Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) – Stewart is assigned to see that the next one gets through. So the stage is set for a showdown.

Night Passage is the Anthony Mann western that never was. Mann was slated to direct Jimmy Stewart once again but pulled out at the last minute. His replacement was James Neilson (a debut director) and he managed to produce a serviceable movie, but fails to properly use the edgy quality that Mann always seemed to extract from his lead.

There are a number of weaknesses present, not least the overuse of Stewart’s accordian playing! The plot tries to pack in too many ideas and never really develops any of them sufficiently; Murphy and Stewart’s battle for the soul of Brandon De Wilde could have been expanded upon. It is shown early on that Stewart’s old flame is now married to his boss, but again nothing much is made of this.

Nevertheless, there are lots of good things here. The cinematography of William H. Daniels shows off the Colorado scenery to breathtaking effect in some beautiful shots and Dimitri Tiomkin provides one of his great trademark scores. I’ve heard it said that his music is sometimes too overpowering and in-your-face but I can’t think of any examples of his work that I didn’t like. Murphy is good in the role of the black sheep; he always seemed to give better performances when playing anti-heroic characters (No Name on the Bullet and John Huston’s The Unforgiven come to mind). There’s also a fine array of familiar support players in Jay C. Flippen, Jack Elam, Olive Carey, Hugh Beaumont and Paul Fix.

The film is available on DVD from Universal and looks very nice indeed in anamorphic scope – I have the R2 but I imagine the R1 uses the same transfer. Recommended.


23 thoughts on “Night Passage

  1. Bring back the western!!!! hooray for Robert Duvall who has been in two recently. We need the good guys who do what’s right because it is right.
    Love Audie Murphy, a true hero. Wish they would show more than the same ones on TV.


  2. I’m guessing that you’re referring to ‘Broken Trail’ as one of those Robert Duvall westerns. If so, it is an excellent piece of work from Walter Hill with some fantastic photography.

    As for the Western returning, it has made a small comeback of late with ‘Seraphim Falls’, the ‘3.10 to Yuma’ remake and ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’. I too would like to see more on TV, DVD and in the cinema.


  3. I’d love to have seen what Mann would have done with this. As it is ‘serviceable’ is a pretty good description of what we got. Neilson lacked the experience and was essentially a TV director. It’s one of Murphy’s best though, behind No Name on the Bullet, and I think the actor enjoyed the chance to break away from playing squeaky clean heroes.

    Sadly I can’t see the western making a comeback. Much as I enjoyed both Seraphim Falls and 3:10 to Yuma neither set the box office alight.


  4. True, I don’t think any of the recent westerns were box office dynamite but nor did they bomb totally. So I live in hope.
    I got to see ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ last weekend in downtown Athens, where it’s just opened, and I was pleased to note that it played to a full and appreciative house.


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  6. Agreed. An Anthony Mann western that I wish had stayed in his hands. Alas, not meant to be. Fine look at this one, Colin.

    p.s., IIRC, the conflict behind this picture led to the falling out with James Stewart, the result being the two never worked together again.


    • I think those sentiments are shared by many. In the past I tended to be fairly lukewarm myself, although watching the film again back at the beginning of the year saw me concentrating more on the positive aspects.
      I guess that we’re all curious how Mann would have handled the movie, but the fact remains that it has to be judged on its own merits. As such, the beautiful cinematography and the lighter, more relaxed performance by Stewart are worthwhile elements.


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  8. I’m six years late again, but have just watched this Western and really enjoyed it. However, I wondered if a chunk was cut out somewhere along the line? It starts off brilliantly and has some great one-liners, but then veers off somewhere and doesn’t really develop all the plot lines, like the relationship between Stewart and his old flame, as you say. Also Dan Duryea is somewhat wasted.- I was expecting him to get a lot more screen time. But Stewart is so good in it, and I must admit I rather liked his accordion playing. I found the sound track on the Universal DVD a bit muffled and kept having to rewind to catch bits of dialogue, but the Technicolor and landscapes are gorgeous.


    • Never too late, Judy! This is a film I’ve warmed to more and more over the years – I feel better about it now than I did back when i wrote that short piece. Duryea is oddly loud in the film but I’d still like to see more of him – such a terrific performer.
      Generally, I like the cast overall and yes, the movie looks beautiful – wonderful location work.


      • Just realised I was actually 8 years late! But I think this could well be a film I’ll return to too. I was hoping Duryea would get a few more lines other than ‘funny man’, which he seems to say endlessly. I agree he is rather shouty in this but still enjoyed watching him.


  9. Hi Colin….watched this film this week and figured you would have covered. 😉 Wanted to share some of my own reflections:

    1.) The Positives – Colorado Scenery, Train Shots & Jimmy Stewart. As someone who has Colorado as a second home, Night Passage did a great job filming the south-western area of the state, specifically between Durango and Silverton. It’s majestic country. As well, the trailing camera shots of men riding their horses to catch up to the train were well-done and perhaps with the Technirama format it was an attempt to go for a type of “3-D” effect. I watched an online version of the film and would like to see it in full-rendered glory, simply for the landscapes and outdoor shots.

    Despite the over-use of the accordion as a plot-device, I thought that Stewart’s portrayal was quite measured – it was a mix of resignation and underlying warmth that was well-acted. I chuckled to myself to wonder if Stewart carrying his accordion inspired Charles Bronson’s harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)….not likely! 😉

    2.) It’s Ok, I’ll Miss that Train. Dan Duryea needed to be reigned in his portrayal and the endless “you better watch it” warnings he gave to Murphy’s Utica Kid rang hollow in short order. Director Neilson did well with the outdoor cinematography but he needed a firmer hand with some of the over-emoting & repetitious dialogue.

    As well, establishing the plot-point of the railroad workers needing their pay, with the opening scene of dancing & fighting, went a little too long for me and felt like a John Ford-homage of the “common folk” who built the railroad & settled the West. I’m all for acknowledging that but it needed some editing.

    I’m hoping to ride the Durango-Silverton train for the first time later this year and so when I do, I’ll be thinking of Stewart and Brandon De Wilde on that open flat car on the way to “end of track”!

    Cheers, Colin.


    • Chad, this is a lovely looking film and it does benefit from being seen in the best form available – I think you’ll enjoy it even more if you do get the opportunity to watch it again in a format that shows off the photography to better effect. I’m rather envious o that train trip and hope you have a great time.

      Duryea gives a strange performance in this, not bad but not characteristic of his other work either. I agree he needed to dial it back some.


    • And yet it’s not a bad movie at all. It has grown on me over time, and I feel better about it now than I did when I wrote this short piece. Duryea’s shouty performance remains odd however.


  10. Colin
    A bit harsh perhaps on my part? The look of the film is nice but other than that, it seems to just fumble about a bit much. I seldom say a nasty word about a film unless it rubs me the wrong way, I well admit it has been a good 15 years or more since last seen. LOL Ah, shucks! Ok, I’ll give it another go and see if my view has changed. I see it is coming up on cable here in a few weeks.


    • As I say, it has grown on me over time. I’d say it looks spectacularly good in places and the cast buys a lot of goodwill. It’s not without its faults but there are strengths there too. As ever, that’s just my take on it though.


  11. Colin
    Speaking of director James Neilson, I was rooting around in a box of old dvd-r discs Sunday and came up with a television episode made by Neilson the year before NIGHT PASSAGE.
    It is called “Man without Fear” and is from the Ford Theatre series that ran 195 episodes between 1952-57.

    Joseph Cotten and Raymond Burr play business partners with a slight problem. The problem? It seems that Cotten has been playing fast and loose with the company funds. He then set partner Burr up for the crime. Burr gets a 10 year extended holiday from the state. Then Cotten applies the old knife to the back of Burr by marrying Burr’s ex-wife. Needless to say, Burr escapes and comes a calling. Nice bit of tv with good work from Neilson.



  12. I forgot to mention that it was a re-watch for me. Saw it back in 2006. The print you posted there is actually better than mine.


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