Monday, June 21, 2021

James Stewart Sings--and Plays the Accordion--in Night Passage

Night Passage (1957) should have been the sixth Western starring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann. The duo's earlier collaborations included some of the finest Westerns ever made (e.g., Winchester '73, Bend of the River). However, according to Jeanine Basinger's biography Anthony Mann, the director withdrew from the picture at the last minute because he felt the script was weak. Mann's decision created a rift between James Stewart and him, and the pair never worked together again. Journeyman director James Neilson took over the movie.

The opening scenes of Night Passage play like a classic Mann Western. Stewart stars as Grant McLaine, who makes his living by playing the accordion after being fired by the railroad five years earlier. It turns out that Grant, who was responsible for the railroad's security, let an outlaw named The Utica Kid ride away. Now, however, the railroad's boss (Jay C. Flippen) wants to re-hire Grant to stop a gang that's been stealing the company's payrolls on a regular basis.

De Wilde, Stewart, and accordion.
As in earlier Mann Westerns, colorful characters abound. Miss Vittles (Olive Carey) is a sly old lady who follows around gold prospectors like a mobile chuckwagon business. Paul Fix plays a worker sandwiched between his wife (Ellen Corby) and one of the "professional ladies" in the railroad camp. Brandon De Wilde, who played the youth Joey in Shane, plays another Joey here.

Alas, most of these characters are quickly forgotten when Grant agrees to guard the latest payroll train. To no one's surprise, the outlaw gang attacks the train, but can't find the money. So, they kidnap the railroad boss's wife and hold her for a ransom of $10,000. Grant, who has cleverly hidden the payroll with Joey, gets hit on the head and left for dead. He's just fine, though, and sets out to recover the money and free the hostage.

Night Passage is a solid Western, but it's also not a very memorable one. Although written by veteran Western screenwriter Borden Chase, it lacks the overarching themes (e.g., redemption, family, civilization, etc.) that elevated the Mann-Stewart films. There are also too many characters jammed into the story, leaving some of the cast stuck with stereotypes--in particular, Dianne Foster as the "good girl" and Dan Duryea's as the psychotic outlaw leader.

Audie Murphy as Utica.
Then, there is the miscasting of Audie Murphy as The Utica Kid and James Stewart's accordion. Murphy was at the peak of his acting career, so his hiring probably made sense from a box office perspective. However, The Utica Kid is an ambitious, quick-witted cynic with conflicted morals. That clashes with Murphy's established earnest on-screen persona and he lacks the acting chops to pull off the role. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't appear until 35 minutes into the 90-minute movie.

That brings us to the aforementioned accordion. James Stewart plays the accordion (as he did as a youth) and sings in Night Passage (although his accordion playing was dubbed over by a professional). If you want to hear Stewart crooning songs like "You Can't Get Far Without a Railroad" (with music by Dimitri Tiomkin), then Night Passage is required viewing. To be honest, the legendary star can carry a tune, though it's understandable why he didn't become a singer. The accordion, though, is another matter. Stewart's character has to lug it all over the Wild West--on his horse, on the train, on his back. The only reason seems to be so he can play a familiar family tune for Utica--who turns out to be his brother.

The challenge with a movie like Night Passage is imagining how good it could have been. With Anthony Mann's directing, a key casting change, a better screenplay, and less accordion playing, it might have ranked with the best Westerns of the 1950s.


  1. I wish Night Passage was the better movie it could have been but that doesn't keep me from popping it in the DVD player every once in a while.
    This sentimental Tiomkin fan used to sing Follow the River to my kids as a lullaby. My, they showed a lot of patience!

  2. I do have a fave line in Night Passage. Joey to Grant: "Why don't you give up drinking and then you'll have two bits when you need it."

  3. Too bad Anthony Mann withdrew from the project. If only...

  4. ames Stewart plays the accordion (as he did as a youth) ?

  5. Oh dear, the accordion gets a bad wrap again....I personally love the instrument ( you have to play it to love it ). I thought Night Passage was pretty memorable even without Anthony Mann's direction but it may be because I like the actors in this film. Brandon de Wilde always gave a good performance, Dianne Foster was so pretty, and Audie does a great job at playing the bad kid on the block for a change.

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