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The workers on the railroad haven't been paid in months --- that's because Whitey and his gang, including fast-shooting, dangerous, but likeable Utica Kid, keep holding up the train for its payroll. Grant McLaine, a former railroad employee who was fired in disgrace, is recruited to take the payroll through under cover. A young boy and a shoebox figure into the plot when Whitey's gang tries to hold up the train and Grant and the Kid meet again to settle an old score. Written by
This is the Western that director Anthony Mann backed away from, claiming that the script was too weak. Was he justified in doing so? How does "Night Passage" measure up when compared with the Mann Westerns? Is it as good?
Let's look at the positives first. The scenery, filmed in the Colorado Rockies, is magnificent, on a par with the best of Mann's Westerns. As for action, there is plenty of it, climaxed with a great shootout. The cast is experienced, many of them veterans from previous Mann efforts. No big difference here.
Audie Murphy stands tall as the Utica Kid. He is introduced to the screen dramatically, framed against the sky dressed all in black as he pulls up his horse to look down upon the train that will soon be relieved of its precious cargo. Back at the outlaw hideaway, he sits back in quiet amusement as he goads mercurial boss Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), knowing how far he can push and when to back away. Definitely the most interesting character.
However, "Night Passage" falls down in two very important areas, the treatment of the leading man and the strength of the overall script.
Mann's heroes are emotionally scarred, bordering on hysteria and total breakdown before finally getting the upper hand. James Stewart's Grant McLaine never comes close to reaching that point, even though he has plenty of things to fret about; his brother is an outlaw, he lost his job with the railroad after helping his brother escape and he can't find another job. He contents himself playing the accordion and singing for small change and we can never really get the feel of his deep resentment.
Mann's Westerns are lean and taut, with no superfluous dialog and no wasted scenes. Director James Nielson, on the other hand, gets sidetracked, allowing himself to engage in the kind of tomfoolery that director John Ford was sometimes wont to do. At the railroad camp, workers, who we never see working, dance to McLaine's accordion playing until that degrades into a wild free-for-all. Ford could pull off this kind of thing; Nielson is less successful.
To sum up and answer the question, this Western doesn't quite measure up to those of Mann's, but it's not bad either. It can be enjoyed as entertainment as long as one doesn't look for great character depth. Whether Anthony Mann could have made it something more will forever be a matter of conjecture.
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