|Whispering Smith (1948)
Run time: Passed | 88 min | Western
Director: Leslie Fenton
Writers: Frank Butler, Karl Kamb
Stars: Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Brenda Marshall
By-the-book railroad detective Luke Smith (Ladd) learns that his friend (Preston) was fired from his railroad job and has joined a group of outlaws in wrecking trains. A fine, suspenseful adventure filled with pistol-packing action.
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Alan Ladd’s first starring western and first film in technicolor is Whispering Smith. I have a funny feeling that someone at Paramount figured out that in boots with a couple of inches of heels on them, Mr. Ladd could get some additional height unnoticed. He certainly did do a lot of westerns after Whispering Smith.
According to the films of Alan Ladd and the biography by Beverly Linet, Ladd had purchased a ranch for his family and enjoyed his time out there and became an expert rider. For someone who arrived late to the western genre, Alan Ladd does sit the saddle well and looks right at home on the range.
The story based on a novel by Frank Spearman had been filmed two times previously as a silent film. Ladd is a railroad detective and we first meet him going after Murvyn Vye and his two outlaw brothers. Ladd’s best friend is Robert Preston and his wife Brenda Marshall almost married Ladd back in the day.
Preston is a happy go lucky sort, but a lout none the less. The green eyed monster gets him though as Ladd is hanging around. Preston falls for the line that chief villain Donald Crisp gives him. Especially after he gets fired from the railroad after tangling with new superintendent John Eldredge. With his knowledge about the railroad, Preston becomes invaluable to Crisp.
Whispering Smith is directed by Leslie Fenton, former actor who was gradually getting into A films, but he retired after directing only a few more films after this one. The character he creates for Ladd is a harbinger of the one that George Stevens did for Ladd in Shane. I have no doubt that Stevens cast Ladd in Shane after viewing Whispering Smith.
And Whispering Smith probably would be considered a classic western if someone like George Stevens or John Ford or Anthony Mann had directed it. It’s that good.
Donald Crisp is a garrulous, but crafty outlaw leader. William Demarest is fine in the sidekick role. But the portrayal among the supporting cast to watch is Frank Faylen’s as the albino killer in Crisp’s gang. I also think that George Stevens was influenced in his direction of Jack Palance in Shane from Faylen’s portrayal. Faylen has even less dialog than Palance did in Shane, but he will absolutely chill you when you watch the film.
Whispering Smith is an absolute must for western fans and fans of Alan Ladd. It’s a turning point film in his career and I’m glad it is finally out on DVD. Only wish a VHS version had been made of it.
"Whispering Smith" is a pretty good railroad yarn in which Alan Ladd plays the title role.
Luke "Whispering" Smith (Ladd) is a two-gun railway detective who is sent to investigate why an unusual number of train wrecks are happening. As he rides towards town he is ambushed by the Barton Brothers and loses his horse. Smith flags down a train and climbs aboard where he finds his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) who also works for the railroad.
Meanwhile at the next telegraph stop, the Bartons murder the agent and bust up the telegraph. Just then the train arrives and Smith guns Leroy and Gabby Barton (Robert Wood, Bob Kortman) while Blake Barton (Murvyn Vye) escapes. Smith catches up with him later when Barton again tries to ambush him, this time in town under the watchful eyes of Rebstock and his gunsel Whitey DuSang (Frank Faylen).
Sinclair takes Smith to his ranch where he meets Sinclair’s wife Marion (Brenda Marshall) with whom he had been involved some years earlier. Smith learns that his friend is tied in with local big rancher Rebstock (Donald Crisp) and begins to suspect Sinclair’s involvement in the train wrecks.
Railway boss McCloud (John Eldredge) fires Sinclair for stealing freight from the latest wreckage and Sinclair then becomes an active member of Rebstock’s gang. This leads to several confrontations between between the two old friends. Finally, Smith rounds up a posse and stages a final showdown with the gang and……
Ladd is a little hard to believe as a tough two-gun railroad cop, largely because of his short stature and slight build, although he did much better in "Shane" (1953). Preston on the other hand, steals the film as the tragic Sinclair. Crisp has little to do as the chief bad guy but nevertheless adds his usual class to the role. Marshall does her best as the girl torn between her past and present. Faylen is chilling as the gunfighter Whitey.
This film has the advantage of beautiful technicolor photography and the fast moving action directed by Leslie Fenton. The digital DVD remastered film has been restored to its original beauty and brilliance. Check out the differences between the feature (digitally remastered) and the trailer which is not.
Also an advantage is the cast of familiar faces in the supporting cast. In addition to those already mentioned, William Demarest and Fay Holden play Bill and Emmy Dansing, Smith’s pals, Will Wright as the lazy sheriff, J. Farrell MacDonald as Bill Daggs, a railway official, Eddy Waller as a conductor and Ray Teal as Sinclair’s foreman. Bob Kortman who plays one of the Bartons, had a career that dated back to 1915 where he appeared in several William S. Hart westerns. He was a familiar face in many "B" westerns and serials throughout the 30s and 40s.
If you like railroad westerns, then this one is for you.
Alan Ladd's first film in color was also his first Western, a genre with which he would become associated after making 11 of them in all (having previously excelled in noirs during the 1940s and early 50s). Here he plays a character dating back to the Silent era: a soft-spoken (hence the title) but sharp-shooting investigator for a railroad company which also employs his best friends rugged foreman Robert Preston (who married Ladd's girl Brenda Marshall) and old-timer William Demarest. With Ladd away on company business i.e. chasing a notorious trio of sibling train robbers, Preston falls in with a bad crowd headed by cattle rustler Donald Crisp and his albino henchman Frank Faylen and, on whose account, he has been pilfering 'damaged' goods transported by the railroad. Ladd is ordered back home to look into this wave of train wrecks which have been occurring on a regular basis. Suspecting Crisp and his crew, he pleads with Preston to pull out in time but the latter is too deeply involved by now to listen and an eventual shootout between the two childhood friends is inevitable. An ordinary, unpretentious Western to be sure but one that is well acted, competently staged and provides consistent entertainment for the undiscriminating viewer and Western film buffs in particular.
Don't we all love trains? Railroads as a crucial element in the settlement of the West and the general prosperity of 19th century America seldom get their due in the western movie genre. Whispering Smith, a beautifully crafted 1948 Technicolor Allan Ladd vehicle, fills the gap nicely. Almost every character in this handsome horse opera — or should I say "locomotive opera" — makes his scratch either by working for the railroad or robbing it. The town saloon is called "The Roundhouse" and features a mural of a train coming. When soft-spoken, straight-shooting railroad detective Smith (Ladd) goes after the bad guys, he and the posse take a train with their horses riding penned flat cars.
Frank H. Spearman's long, complex 1916 novel, which yours truly read as a youngster 50-some years ago, has been distilled down by the Frank Butler/Karl Kamb screenplay to concentrate on a love triangle of Smith, his good friend Murray (Robert Preston), and Murray's wife Marian (Brenda Marshall) who is Smith's lost love. Murray is a heel who doesn't deserve the pretty, gentle Marian. Even worse, when he gets fired from his job as foreman of the railroad wrecking crew, he becomes deeply and inextricably involved with a gang of rustlers, train robbers, and general baddies. Though Smith is very proper and stand-offish with Marian, it's obvious he still loves her. But she poorly hides her love for Smith, fueling Murray's volatile temper and wanton disposition with jealously.
While there is plenty of action, Whispering Smith, like most of the better westerns, concentrates on character development, period color, and cinematography. Ladd, though known as a stone-face, was very expressive with his soulful eyes. He plays the stern, upright, and fearless, but friendly, kind, and loyal Smith to perfection. Preston, always fun to watch, essentially reprises his boisterous, happy-go-lucky good guy gone bad character from the even bigger and better train picture Union Pacific (1939). Brenda Marshall plays her tormented role with sensitivity, never forgetting that she is portraying a Victorian lady. In fact one of the charms of this movie is that little of the time period (1940's) in which it was made creeps in to spoil the late 19th century atmosphere. Thanks to the script and Leslie Fenton's expert direction, supporting and even minor characters show robust personalities. William Demarest as Smith's friend and the wrecking crew straw boss is allowed to play it straight, instead of hamming it up as he so often did, and he comes off very nicely. Donald Crisp, seldom a villain in the sound era, is colorful and dastardly as the smarmy, ruthless leader of the outlaw band. Frank Faylen gives a chilling performance as Crisp's main henchman Whitey, an evil, weird-looking albino. Kudos also to Fay Holden as Demarest's boarding house proprietress wife, who sings a duet on the porch with Ladd in a charming scene of 19th century Americana.
The splendid three-strip Technicolor cinematography is provided by Ray Rennahan, who put on film a number of grander Technicolor oaters, such as the exotic Duel In The Sun (1946) and California (1946) (see my review), as well as another very interesting railroad epic The Denver And Rio Grand (1952) (see my review). He no doubt got much good advice, wanted or not. from the Technicolor Corporation's top adviser Natalie Kalmus. She had a reputation for intruding herself into set decoration and costuming, but she usually knew what she was doing. In Whispering Smith it seems everyone's revolver is a nickle-plated one, and the same can be seen in many of Natalie's Westerns. No doubt she thought the nickeled pistols looked prettier in Technicolor than the blue ones! Sets and decorations in this picture, provided by Sam Comer/Betram Granger, and costumes by Mary Kay Dodson are superb. My wife, who claims to know about such things, says the women's dresses were perfectly accurate to the time period.
Editing was silky smooth as in most 'forties productions. All-important pacing was perfect. The story moved fast, but took plenty of breathers for color, character development, and tension building. Credit Fenton and editor Archie Marshek. My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that Adolph Deutsch's score was perhaps slightly too pat and restrained. It was good, but could have been better. Western movies practically demand grand, operatic scores like those of Steiner and Tiompkin. They should be horse operas literally as well as figuratively!
Colorful, authentic, thrilling, and dramatically absorbing, Whispering Smith is a top-notch, adult, "A" western, an under-appreciated classic from Hollywood's Golden Era.