"WHISPERING SMITH" (1948) Review
For years, I had assumed that Alan Ladd starred in only three Westerns - one of them being the acclaimed 1953 movie, "SHANE". Yet, while perusing his filmography, I discovered that he had either starred or co-starred in a good number of "oaters". One of them was the 1948 film, "WHISPERING SMITH".
Based upon Frank H. Spearman's 1906 novel, "WHISPERING SMITH" told the story of a railroad detective named Luke "Whispering" Smith who is assigned to investigate a series of train robberies in late 19th century Wyoming Territory. However, the case becomes personal for Luke when his oldest friend, a local rancher and railroad employee named Murray Sinclair becomes involved with the gang responsible for the robberies.
Superficially, "WHISPERING SMITH" seemed like the typical Western made by Hollywood studios during the studio era. If I have to be honest with myself, Westerns with any real depth seemed rare to me during the so-called "Golden Age of Hollywood" and now. I seriously doubt that any movie critic would regard "WHISPERING SMITH" as something unique. The movie possessed traits one could easily find in mediocre Westerns and a few really good ones:
*Outlaw gang robbing either locals or businesses that dominate the neighborhood
*Corrupt local businessman or rancher leading the outlaws
*Rancher or businessman's main henchman, who happens to be a proficient killer
*Lawman assigned to hunt down outlaws
*Posse chases outlaw around neighborhood/county
Yes, "WHISPERING SMITH" possessed these traits. It also possessed a first-rate dramatic narrative that elevated the movie from the usual Western tropes - namely the love triangle between Luke Smith, his best friend Murray Sinclair and Murray's wife Miriam Sinclair. This triangle was set five years in the past when Miriam, frustrated by Luke's reluctance to propose marriage to her, married Murray. The latter never realized that Luke and Miriam still harbored lingering romantic feelings toward each other . . . until the film's midway point.
Between his resentment toward Luke and Miriam, and being fired by his railroad boss George St. Cloud - whom he disliked - Murray made a choice that proved to be disastrous for his marriage and his friendship with Luke. The developing estrangement between Luke and Murray also proved to be difficult for the former as well. This was especially apparent in the film's second half of the film. Due to his close friendship with Murray; Luke not only struggled and failed to save the other man's job, but also convince the latter to give up his new alliance with the main villain, rancher Barney Rebstock.
"WHISPERING SMITH" not only benefited from this complex narrative regarding the Luke-Miriam-Murray relationship, but also the fine performances from its cast. Once again, Alan Ladd proved he was a better actor than many believed he was in his performance of the leading character, Luke Smith. What made Ladd's performance first-rate his ability to not only convey Luke's contrasting personality traits - soft-spoken, yet friendly demeanor and an intelligent ruthlessness - but also his varying array of emotions with a fluidity that still impress me to this day. Another superb performance came from Robert Preston, who portrayed Luke's best friend Murray Sinclair. Superficially, Murray came off as a one-note personality. But thanks to Preston's performance, Murray proved to a complicated character that transformed from a genial, yet sometimes pushy man to an embittered one, who had allowed his bullheadedness and temper to lead him to a bad choice. Brenda Marshall's portrayal of Miriam Sinclair also struck me as equally impressive. Her Miriam proved to be an emotional and complicated woman, who struggled to repress her lingering feelings for Luke and determined to save Murray and her marriage. Marshall conveyed these aspects of Miriam's emotional state in two excellent scenes. One of them featured her never ending frustration and resentment toward Luke's failure to propose marriage all those years ago. And other featured a quarrel between Miriam and Murray in which she finally convinced him to sell their ranch and move away from the neighborhood . . . and Barney Rebstock's orbit.
There were other performances I enjoyed. One of them came from William Demarest, who gave an emotional, yet satisfying portrayal of Bill Dansing, a railroad employee who had been friends of Luke and Murray for years and served as their father figure. Donald Crisp gave an amusing and entertaining performance as Barney Rebstock, the rancher who hid his criminal and ruthless behavior behind a genial mask. Another came from John Eldredge, whose portrayal of George McCloud, the railroad official who clashed with Murray, struck me as subtle and intelligent. I also enjoyed the solid performances from the likes of Fay Holden, Murray Vye, Ward Wood and Will Wright.
I have to say a word about Ray Rennahan's cinematography. What can I say? I thought it was beautiful looking. Rennahan, who had won an Academy Award for his work in 1939's "GONE WITH THE WIND", also shot "WHISPERING SMITH" in Technicolor. I have seen other films shot in Technicolor that struck me as rather garish. I cannot say the same about "WHISPERING SMITH". I found the photography sharp and colorful, without being garish, as shown in the image below:
Although I found myself impressed by the narrative regarding Luke's relationship with the Sinclairs, I cannot disregard some of the film's action sequences. There were two that really impressed me. One proved to the final sequence that featured the posse chasing Murray, Rebstock and the latter's gang around the countryside following a train robbery. Sure, I thought it was an unoriginal trope to use in a Western. But I thought it was exciting and well shot by director Leslie Fenton. However, I was more impressed by Fenton's work in the sequence that featured Luke's encounter with the Barton boys - members of Rebstock's gang - at a rail junction in the rain. It featured good action, good acting and great editing by Archie Marshek.
As much as I enjoyed "WHISPERING SMITH", there are some aspects of it that I found unappealing. One of them proved to be actor Frank Faylen's portrayal of henchman Whitey DuSang. I realize that Faylen was a first-rate actor. I have seen him in other productions. But . . . I found his portrayal of DuSang rather one-dimensional. Faylen spent most of the film hovering around Donald Crisp with his arms folded and staring at people with squinting eyes. If this was his way of looking intimidating, I did not buy it. I do know whether to blame Faylen, the director Fenton, screenwriters Frank Butler and Karl Kamb or Frank Spearman's portrayal of the character in his novel. Another major problem I had with "WHISPERING SMITH" proved to be Mary Kay Dodson's costume designs for the female characters. Exactly what was this film's setting? Some of Dodson's costumes seemed to indicate the 1880s. And some of her costumes - especially for Brenda Marshall - seemed to indicate the 1890s. Nor did it help that the women's hairstyles seemed to reflect the late 1940s.
Despite my quibbles with Frank Faylen and Mary Kay Dodson's costume designs, I enjoyed "WHISPERING SMITH" very much. Not only does it happen to be one of my favorite films starring Alan Ladd, I actually like it more than his more famous film, "SHANE". I am certain that many would find this sacrilegious. However, thanks to Leslie Fenton's direction, a screenplay that conveyed a complex love triangle and excellent performances from a cast led by Ladd, Robert Preston and Brenda Marshall; I cannot help how I feel.