Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Whispering Smith (1948)

Adapted from the 1906 novel by western writer Frank Spearman, this railroad story had already been filmed in 1916 and 1926. This time out, Alan Ladd starred as the soft-spoken Smith, opposite Robert Preston as his voluble, long-time friend. As in other westerns of the period, like Shane (1952) and The Man From Colorado (1948), reviewed here last week, this film pairs up two men and puts a woman between them.

Plot. Though likable enough, Preston we learn is hanging out with a bunch of shady characters and using his job as railway wrecking boss to commit fraud. Cleaning up a train wreck, he and his crew loot the damaged freight cars. Ladd, working as a railroad detective, finds out, and Preston gets fired.

When he joins in with a gang of train robbers, a guard gets killed, and Preston becomes an accessory to murder. Ladd eventually hunts him down, and after an exchange of gunfire, Preston expires.

The woman in this case is Brenda Marshall, who seems to have preferred Ladd but married the man who proposed to her, Preston. Now she is torn by how things have turned out. Preston, with a ranch he’s paid for with the proceeds of stolen goods, has built her quite a nice home. But judging from his dubious companions, she can see the writing on the wall.

Ladd, meanwhile, gallantly tells her to stay true to Preston and persuade him to leave and start a new life somewhere else. Too headstrong to recognize good advice, he gets abusive instead. She’s clearly destined for the arms of Ladd, though the film stops short of delivering on that promise. Ladd simply rides off in the final scene, apparently saddened by the death of his old friend.

The novel. The film is a stripped down and highly simplified version of Spearman’s original novel (reviewed here earlier). There are exciting scenes involving gunfire and the shooting of mean-looking desperadoes, but the end result seems almost domesticated. Spearman stages the final confrontation between Smith and the gang of thieves in a remote canyon, but the film sets the last meeting of Ladd and Preston in the well-appointed parlor of Preston’s ranch house.

McCloud, the new, young division manager of the railroad is a fully developed character in the novel. Spearman devotes at least half the story to him and to a young woman from a neighboring ranch that he meets. The character who is Preston’s wife in the film has already left him in the novel and is living alone. McCloud rents a room from her.

The novel sprawls over its narrative terrain in a way that gets a reader immersed in a time and place that is dominated by the business of running a railroad on the untamed frontier. An added quirk is that Whispering Smith has gotten his name from having lost his voice once as a boy. In the film, Ladd is simply known for his stealth, though we never see any evidence of that unless talking very softly qualifies.

Smith (on right), N. C. Wyeth
The original Whispering Smith as described by Spearman and illustrated by N. C. Wyeth was a bulk of a man with a thick, walrus mustache. Ladd’s clean-shaven face and slender, under-sized build make him a more gentle, self-effacing presence. Calmly sure of himself, he and Preston are easy foils.

Wrapping up. Shot entirely in California, the film has a convincing look of the rugged West, especially in the opening sequence as a lone rider passes along a mountain stream past banks of snow. The frequent use of moving trains provides a realistic dimension to the action. A scene of smashed freight cars after a derailment is convincingly staged, with workmen busily crawling over and through the wreckage.

The railroad town, Medicine Bend, is also a handsome one, with high false fronts and elaborate lettering on the sides of buildings. The place looks lived in. Domestic interiors are warmly and colorfully furnished. By contrast, the saloon is a sweaty, smoky place, not brightly lighted. In fact, the lighting of most of the film is more in keeping with noir stylizing.

Many scenes are shot not only at night but with falling rain to add to the gloom. Costuming is often dark. Ladd wears a black hat, and in the last scene a black shirt. The Barton gang, attempting to hijack a train early in the film, is wearing black slickers.

From Shining Victory (1941)
The cast includes veteran actors Donald Crisp as the bad influence in Preston’s life and Frank Faylen as a nasty-looking villain. In fact, all the villains are particularly nasty. Director Leslie Fenton had a long career as an actor before switching to directing in 1938. His other westerns included Streets of Laredo (1949) and The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951). The character of Whispering Smith was revived once more in a short-lived TV series in 1961 starring Audie Murphy.

Whispering Smith is currently available at netflix and amazon. The complete Audie Murphy series is also available at amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Source: imdb.com

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel (1900)


16 comments:

  1. There was a radio series, as well, I'm pretty sure...ever hear it?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Todd, maybe you're thinking of THE WHISTLER.

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    3. Nah, but I might be conflating the British DJ Whispering Jack Smith, or simply more likely thinking of the tv series:

      http://www.thrillingdetective.com/eyes/whispering_smith.html

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    4. Hm. Now, why did I now think that Jack Smith was British? It's a catch as catch can time of life, clearly. More a singer/"personality" than DJ, too.

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  2. I like SMITH and have seen several times.

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    1. Ladd pretty much reprised Smith in SHANE.

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  3. Sounds kind of interesting, if only for the scenery and gloom of it.

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    1. Usually rain serves a purpose in a western, but in this one it's mostly for the atmospheric effect. I don't recall a single mention of bad weather in the original novel.

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  4. You do such a nice job with these reviews, Ron. You and Yvette put me to shame.

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    1. Thanks for the pat on the back. I'm a teacher; I can't help myself.

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  5. Thanks for a fine review. I haven't seen WHISPERING SMITH, either this or the other versions. Hope to catch this one soon. While I don't remember Alan Ladd, I do recall Robert Preston from THE LAST FRONTIER. It had a memorable cast.

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    1. You'll find Alan Ladd in maybe his most memorable performance in SHANE.

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  6. I've always been a fan of WHISPERING SMITH, and of Alan Ladd's westerns in general.

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  7. Several of Spearman's railroad Westerns, including "Whispering Smith," are available online.

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search.html/?default_prefix=author_id&sort_order=downloads&query=25772

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  8. I've also been a big fan of the 1948 version of "WHISPERING SMITH". In a way, it's a strange film wrapped in a cloak of your typical Western.

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