Night Passage (Blu-ray Review)17 Apr, 2017 By: Mike Clark
All-Region French Import (billed as Le survivant des monts lointains)
Stars James Stewart, Audie Murphy, Dan Duryea, Brandon de Wilde, Dianne Foster.
Sometimes an unexpectedly great-looking disc is its own justification if it catches you in a receptively generous mood. And Passage, whose lack of any substantial dramatic sand may have been a contributor to its unfortunate footnote in Western history, gets a lot of “demonstration” visual utmost out of its source Technirama roots. This is hardly insignificant: Technirama was pretty close to what a wider-screen VistaVision would have been like, and like VistaVision, the process was relatively short-lived after leaving a legacy-litany of cosmetic stunners, as in this case. Offhand, I think Warner Archive’s release of Susan Slept Here was the last time such a home-market beauty of a non-household-name so blindsided me in a good way.
Then again, Universal-International didn’t skimp on Passage production bucks, given Passage’s Colorado location shooting, Garbo/Sinatra favorite William H. Daniels as cinematographer and a Dimitri Tiomkin score that was, alas, so sparse that the movie never rated a soundtrack LP (too bad, because I love the title “Follow the River” theme). The casting is also a bit of a pip, starting with James Stewart and Audie Murphy (U-I’s biggest regular Western star taking second billing and, up to this career point, rare outlaw role) as unlikely brothers wisely given few opportunities (in replacement director James Neilson’s staging) to be photographed together height-to-height. There’s also Dan Duryea as one of his prototypically over-the-top heavies, Dianne Foster and an oddly blonde Elaine Stewart as frustrated love interests and Brandon de Wilde in that post-Shane, slightly baby-fatted “in-between” age — only a couple years, though, before he learned about the pitfalls of not using protection in the once semi-scandalous teen pregnancy drama Blue Denim.
The aforementioned footnote to all this is Passage’s history as the movie that permanently ruptured the fruitful relationship between Stewart and director Anthony Mann, a collaboration that had produced five Westerns (3-4 of them classics or close) and three non-Westerns between just 1950 and 1955, including a left-field smash with The Glenn Miller Story. There has been more than one reason advanced for this, but the most accepted one is that Mann accurately found Borden Chase’s script to be weak, even though Chase had penned three of the Stewart-Mann Westerns (to say nothing of Red River, Vera Cruz and a comparably minor outdoor outing I’ve always liked: Backlash, with Richard Widmark and Donna Reed).
To be sure, the drama is on the soft side here, and in a movie that runs just 90 minutes, Stewart (with accordion) gets to sing two songs in full not counting one or two reprises. You have to wonder if Mann would have allowed that, perhaps forecasting that neither performance would have been able to compete with Short Fat Fannie and Rang Tang Ding Dong in terms of the summer-of-’57 pop zeitgeist. And you also have to remember that in the previous (and, as it turned out, last) Stewart-Mann Western, The Man From Laramie, Stewart had gotten his finger intentionally shot off or close in a still unforgettably brutal scene for its day. Well, at least he doesn’t do Lady of Spain here.
What we get instead is a mild sibling-rivalry drama between honorable Stewart and nominal gang member/bad guy Murphy, though Stewart himself has been fired by a railroad construction concern on circumstantial evidence that he gave his brother a helping hand after a long ago train holdup. Now, it’s five years later, payroll trains are getting held up routinely amid fresh construction, and a much-debated decision is made to rehire the tainted former employee. Among those in the “pro”-Stewart camp are Jay C. Flippen, married here to the much younger Elaine Stewart, and whose courtship dramatization likely would have proved more interesting than Jimmy’s singing.
Murphy doesn’t even show up until about 35 minutes in, but the supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces who are something of a kick to see spread out over a very spacious screen against electric Technicolor vistas. (The process photography is also so good that there were times when I wasn’t even sure it was process photography.) There’s Robert J. Wilke, complete with facial scar, as a Duryea hired thug; stuntman/actor Chuck Roberson playing cards with the similarly date-less Jack Elam; The Searchers’ Olive Carey (wife of Harry Sr. and mom of Harry Jr.) as an always coffee-ready spinster named “Miss Vittles”; Hugh Beaumont, just before he got domesticated in suburbia despite Eddie Haskell derringer fantasies, as a railroad exec who distrusts Stewart but gives him a spare coat; and super-tight, real-life John Wayne buddy Paul Fix as part of the construction crew. By the way, am I the only one who’s ever envisioned the Duke going to see his old buddy Paul’s latest film as the ’70s began and having it turn out to be … Zabriskie Point? (I suppose it can be argued that Cahill: U.S. Marshal, which later reunited the actors, might itself have been better with a Death Valley orgy scene.)
Under its French title, Passage comes to Blu-ray as part of Elephant Films’ recent slew of Universal releases — they include a handful of Universal-controlled Paramounts with Marlene Dietrich as well as some U-I Douglas Sirks — that turn out to be playable on Region A machines if you don’t have an All-Region machine. With the exception of Robert Aldrich’s grimy Ulzana’s Raid, which was no beauty queen even in theaters, every one of them I’ve seen (or at least seen part of) to date has placed highly on the shipshape meter; as a result, I harbor enthusiastic hopes for their now available version of Sirk’s CinemaScope Captain Lightfoot (a favorite), which definitely looks great on the Region B Masterpieces of Cinema Koch Media German import. But dramatic limitations or not, I did have a good time with Passage, which is perhaps most flatteringly viewed as an Audie Murphy Western that tossed in some of the best casting and budgetary goodies that any Murphy Western ever had. Or maybe as a James Stewart musical that further features what exhibitor trade magazines used to call “scenic values.”