A Sleepy Western Passage
"Night Passage" is one of those movies which makes me wonder how could it have been if original director Anthony Mann hadn't walked away and been replaced by James Neilson. The reason being is that whilst "Night Passage" is entertaining as it gallops along at a pleasant enough pace it is also rather average and at times unfocussed. It just feels like the end product was rushed thanks to the change in director and apart from some stunning scenic shots and James Stewart delivering a better than average performance there is little which really makes it stand out.
After the railroad pay wagon is held up and robbed for a third time by a bunch of cowboys including The Utica Kid (Audie Murphy - Destry) and Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), the railroad boss is forced to hire Grant McLaine (James Stewart - The Spirit of St. Louis) to travel aboard the train and deliver the money personally. But when the train gets held up again and the money ends up in the wrong hands McLaine is forced to hunt down the train robbing cowboys where he has to come face to face with The Utica Kid.
The storyline to "Night Passage" is all rather basic with Grant McLaine hired to carry a payroll on a train which had been continually robbed by some baddies, unfortunately Grant loses the money and so sets out to get it back. That really is just about it, there are some embellishments surrounding a woman and a twist over who the baddies are but it's not enough to make the storyline any more interesting. This basically leaves it to run through various western standards such as brawls and gunfights to keep you entertained.
Although having said that the storyline does insinuate a certain amount of back story which is meant to add a sense of mystery over the character of Grant McLaine. We learn that he once worked on the rail road and was a feared gun fighter but something happened 5 years earlier leaving him to wander around playing his accordion. The trouble is that it doesn't really work, we don't really get anything more than a 2 dimensional character which is the same for all the important roles and as such it ends up feeling all a little flat.
What also doesn't help is that at times "Night Passage" seems rather confused as to what it wants to be. The opening scene which sees McLaine roll up and start playing his accordion where the workers start and impromptu dance followed by a brawl has comical undertones to it. And these semi comical scenes re-occur through out but they are in direct contrast to the actual dramatic storyline making it lose focus. The good thing is that James Stewart, an accomplished accordion player, gets to delight us with a few toe tapping tunes on his instrument and also surprisingly sing a couple of simple songs. But again it almost feels out of place even though it is fun.
Where "Night Passage" is at its most enjoyable is when Nielson captures the surroundings. The sweeping shots of the mountains with a train climbing slowly are brilliant as are many of the close frame shots aboard the train. It makes "Night Passage" feel grander than it really is and that is the same for the action. There are the standard brawls and gunfights but they are shot so well that you feel like you are drawn into the action. It's just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn't live up to the high standards.
As for the performances well the cast may include Audie Murphy as The Utica Kid, Dianne Foster as Charlotte Drew and Elaine Stewart as Verna Kimball but "Night Passage" is a movie built around James Stewart. Now this is not the greatest James Stewart performance and not one of his best western performances either but he manages to make his character at least a little interesting despite being 2 dimensional. There are brief moments during the story where Stewart demonstrates what a great actor he is delivering the emotion of the scene to perfection. But again his performance is let down because at times his character is unfocused turning from dramatic to almost comical in a blink of an eye.
What this all boils down to is that "Night Passage" is an entertaining movie but it's not overly memorable. The storyline is quite flat and the occasional almost comical scenes end up causing it to be unfocussed. But it does have some impressive cinematography and Stewart delivers a performance greater than the movie itself.