In El Paso, lawyer and ex-Confederate captain Clay Fletcher forms a vigilante group to bring law and order to a town where the judge is a drunk, the sheriff is corrupt and the town is run by a crooked landowner.
Wells Fargo stages are being robbed by 'The Poet' and no one can find out who he is. Wylie is a gambler who is found by the sheriff and gives him the option of going back to a questionable ... See full summary »
In 1863, having escaped from a rock-quarry prison in Salt Lake, six inmates led by convicted murderer Pete Black take over a small wagon train headed by preacher Jacob Karns. Tensions and hardships grow as the travelers continue to trek toward California across dry, desolate country. Written by
dinky-4 of Minneapolis
Mr. Brody, Undertaker:
By the way, Reverend, I'm the undertaker. The only silk-lined hearse west of Independence. I'm on the way to the cemetery now. I have a little trouble gettin' the pallbearers out of town, ah, on account of the saloon, you know. Once we get 'em out in the open, I can bury a man real fast.
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While not a notable piece of film-making, this modest western offers so many satisfactions and surprises that it almost merits the designation of "undiscovered gem." After an opening sequence that quickly and efficiently sets up the story, we learn that John Payne will, unexpectedly, play the movie's "bad guy." He's a killer who seems to take grim pleasure in the fact that his escape from prison resulted in the deaths of three guards. There's no attempt to soften his image by suggesting he'd been unjustly convicted and there's no plea for sympathy by, for example, showing a back cruelly scarred by an overseer's whip.
After taking over Dennis O'Keefe's wagon train, Payne seems drawn to leading lady Arleen Whelan but aside from one passionate kiss in a rainstorm, the standard romance between these two never develops. What's more, Whelan's character defies what would have ordinarily been a "goody-goody" role. She's by turns cynical, sullen, and selfish and she never becomes particularly likable.
Dooley ("Casablanca") Wilson also appears in the cast at a time when black faces were rarely featured in movies in general and in westerns in particular.
As the wagon train that Payne and his cohorts take over makes its way to California, the usual hardships occur but they seem a bit starker than usual. A baby dies from lack of milk, its mother drifts into madness, a calf greatly valued by its elderly owners breaks its leg and must be destroyed, a schoolteacher's prize collection of seedlings gets tossed by the side of the road, a father must bury his child. Only at the end of their journey do these pioneers find any respite from their troubles but then there's an explosion inside a tunnel which results in a death and a shift in relationships few would have expected at the start of the movie.
Since Lewis Foster's work classifies him as little more than a journeyman director, the unique qualities of "Passage West" can probably be ascribed to the script co-written by the blacklisted writer, Alvah Bessie. Loyal Griggs, who later won an Oscar nomination for "The Ten Commandments," provides the cinematography which is heavily slanted toward exterior shots. In fact, the first interior, (a saloon), comes at the movie's three-quarters mark.
John Payne, with an uncharacteristic mustache, and Dennis O'Keefe work together much better here than in their earlier "The Eagle and the Hawk" but minor actress Arleen Whelan can do little with the intriguing but sketchily-drawn figure of "Rose." As might be expected -- most notably in the tunnel sequence -- Payne gets a chance to shed his shirt revealing that thatch of chest-hair he had to shave off during his clean-cut and boyish days back in the 1940s.
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