Friday, April 24, 2015

Night Passage by Norman A. Fox


I never read this book until years after the 1957 film adaptation starring James Stewart and Audie Murphy had become one of my favorite Western movies. I’ve talked about this film before, and over time my opinion remains unchanged. Night Passage is a good film. Audie Murphy steals the show as The Utica Kid, Stewart is stalwart and appealing, and Dan Duryea turns in yet another outstanding performance as the bad ass. Brandon de Wild plays the kid, Joey, not all that many years after his memorable turn in Shane opposite Alan Ladd, another favorite. I know that both Stewart and Murphy made better Westerns than this one, but Night Passage is special. I think the 1950s was a remarkable period for Western films. Every time I watch Night Passage I can’t but help from singing along with Stewart as he plays his accordion and sings “Follow the River.” Murphy wears black in this one, a color that suited him well. His first appearance in the film is a shot where he’s galloping over a hill with a mischievous grin on his face. That bit sets the tone for his character and sums up Murphy’s incredible screen persona. How can you not like a gunslinger like this? The screenplay was by Borden Chase, no slouch himself when it came to Westerns. The film has a tactile feel to it; like watching home movies of family and friends that are long gone and being happy to see them again. Chalk me up as a sentimentalist. The novel by Norman A. Fox was published in 1955. I own the 1957 reissue that coincided with the film’s release. Fox was a damn good Western writer and Night Passage is a solid book. The story of Grant McLain’s twelve hours of desperate fury as he saves a payroll hijacked from a train is gritty and relentless. The film actually followed the novel’s plot with differences only in some characters and the compression of time. Told in six sections – Sundown, Deep Dark, Moonrise, Beyond Midnight, Before Dawn and Sunup – the prose is mature, the characters fully developed, and the suspense level is high. I’ve read several of Fox’s Westerns and all of them are good. Fox met Murphy on the set of Night Passage and reportedly Murphy encouraged Fox to write a novel about a horse (Murphy loved and raised horses) and the result was Rope the Wind which Fox dedicated to Murphy. That’s a good book, too. Both Rope the Wind and Night Passage are a good place to start if you haven’t read one of his books. Night Passage – both the book and the film – are recommended for you readers and movie buffs interested in something that is traditional but exceptionally well made. An original poster from Night Passage hangs in my den.

Okay, pards, dust off yer guitars and let’s sing!

FOLLOW THE RIVER
From the movie "Night Passage"
(Music by Dimitri Tiomkin and lyrics by Ned Washington)

Follow the river,
The river knows the way.
Come to me, I pray,
I miss you more each day.
Follow the river,
Wherever you may be
Follow the river back to me.
Follow the river,
The river knows the way,
Hearts can go astray,
It happens every day.
Follow the river,
Wherever you may be
Follow the river back to me.
Sometimes I feel like I will jump for the moon
And tear the sky apart.
Does it matter how full the moon
When you've an empty heart.
Bring back the great love
The love that once we knew
Make my dream come true
The dream I had with you
Follow the river,
Wherever you may be
Follow the river back to me.

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