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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
Kudos for Audie Murphy's acting and James Stewart's accordion playing
Without Anthony Mann to deliver the goods, one would expect "Night Passage" to be a flop under the direction of the TV-oriented James Neilson. Quite the contrary is the case. This is one of the best westerns of the 50's. Audie Murphy, continually underrated by the Hollywood big wigs, turns in his best performance ever, even better than in the more touted "The Red Badge of Courage" or in "To Hell and Back" in which he plays himself. One senses that he is actually portraying himself more in "Night Passage" than in his autobiographical film. He is up against stiff competition and more than takes care of himself. James Stewart is fine as always and his accordion playing is above average. Hell, even his singing isn't all that bad. Some entertainers with less musical talent have built careers for themselves in the record industry. Dan Duryea gives an over the top rendition of gang leader Whitey Harbin, which isn't bad, just different for the gifted actor. The only one wasted in the picture is the fabulous Jack Elam, given only a minor character role with no place to go with it. The rest of the cast, including Hugh Beaumont, aka Ward Cleaver, strut their stuff, including the two women, Dianne Foster and Elaine Stewart. Brandon De Wilde is still playing his Joey Starrett part from "Shane." The viewer can almost hear him yelling, "Shane! Come back, Shane!"
The script by Borden Chase from a story by Norman Fox is a fairly predictable one, reminiscent in some ways of the more complex one Chase wrote for the Stewart/Mann masterpiece, "Winchester '73." Grant McLaine (Stewart) wants his old railroad job back. He's provided the opportunity by doing a job for the railroad, personally carrying the payroll to the workers at the end of the track to prevent Whitey and his gang from stealing it as they were in the habit of doing on a regular basis. There is a conflict of interest though since a gun riding with the Whitey gang is The Utica Kid (Murphy) with whom McLaine has a private connection. Unable to find the payroll, Whitey and his gang kidnap the wife of railroad tycoon, Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen), holding her until the payroll is turned over to them. The title "Night Passage" concerns not only the action that takes place in the night between McLaine and the gang but also the personal transactions that occur among the assorted characters involved in the resolution of the story.
Another asset for "Night Passage" is the cinematography zeroing in on the beautiful Colorado landscape around Durango. The Narrow Gauge Railroad train ride from Durango to Silverton is available for tourists to see the topography first hand. The El Rio de las Animas Perdidas (The River of Lost Souls), called the Animas River by most, is indeed a site to behold.
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