NIGHT PASSAGE (James Neilson, 1957)

Slack and slight, the western Night Passage is most famous for Anthony Mann’s last-minute refusal to direct it, his taking the occasion to badmouth its premise and prospects, and star Jimmy Stewart’s subsequent refusal ever to work with, even to talk to, Mann again. Mann and Stewart had made eight films together, all in the fifties.
     Stupidly, Mann assaulted the believability of casting Stewart and Audie Murphy as brothers given the disparity in their heights. (I can right now image a pair of actual brothers who similarly lack a uniformity in height.) Rather, the film should have publicized as bringing together the screen’s two Tom Destrys—Stewart, in Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939) and Murphy in Destry (Marshall, 1954), young men in the Old West who, even as law officers, try to be as peaceable as possible. In Night Passage, both Grant and Lee McLaine—Grant and Lee: ring a bell?—are violent and vicious; interestingly, Grant nonetheless lectures his kid brother about good and evil. People who criminally dismiss this film miss the point of Grant’s hypocrisy, robbing them of a basis for grasping Grant’s ultimate appropriation of Lee’s girlfriend, with which the film suggestively ends.
     My point is, this film is not without thematic content. Borden Chase’s adaptation of a novel by Norman A. Fox is hardly a distinguished piece of writing, granted; but there’s something there. However, the coyness with which the film delays revealing that the railroad cop and the train robber are brothers is maddening!
     James Nielson directed; William Daniels prettily, softly color photographed. Stewart is good; Murphy, wonderful. Of course, Murphy naturally united a soft-spoken, gentle persona and his rousing celebrity as a killing machine in the Second World War.
     The supporting cast, some of it hectic, distracts.

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