We’re back in remake territory, proving yet again that this is no modern phenomenon. Whispering Smith (1948) was the third time Hollywood had tackled Frank Spearman’s novel about the soft-spoken railroad detective. It wouldn’t be that last either: Audie Murphy went on to portray the character in the short-lived TV show of the same name in 1961. The film places the railroad and its importance right at the centre, in keeping with the vital role it actually played in the conquest, building and civilization of the frontier. Down through the years, the movies have shown the railroad companies in both a positive and negative light depending on the view of the west they wanted to emphasize – regarding the coming of the Iron Horse as either the agent of corruption and restricted freedom or as the champion of progress and modernization. Whispering Smith, for the most part, adopts the latter position.
Luke ‘Whispering’ Smith (Alan Ladd) is the railroad’s star cop, with a reputation for being a calm but deadly man. The opening sees Smith falling victim to a couple of bushwhackers, later revealed as members of the Barton gang. The company has sent Smith west to bring in these outlaws, and he lives up to his billing by efficiently taking out two of the brothers when they attempt to hold up the train he has boarded. However, Smith doesn’t walk away unharmed; the shootout leaves him wounded – saved from death only by a bullet deflecting off the harmonica he carried in his breast pocket. As he recuperates in the home of an old friend, salvage engineer and small-time rancher Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston), we learn that there was some history between Smith and Sinclair’s wife Marion (Brenda Marshall). This is only one of the plot threads though. The other, and more significant one, concerns Smith’s gradual suspicion that Sinclair may have taken his first steps along a shady path. For one thing, there’s Sinclair’s association with a notorious crook and rustler, Rebstock (Donald Crisp), and then there’s the small matter of his apparently living beyond the means of a railroad employee. Still, the friendship between the two men holds firm for the time being. What puts it under strain, and ultimately breaks it, is the bullish refusal on Sinclair’s part to bow down and accept the fact the railroad now has new policies, new men in charge, and is determined to crack down on the kind of petty corruption that would have been overlooked in the past. In the end, both Smith and Sinclair have to choose between friendship and the old, freewheeling ways and the more hard-nosed corporate sensibility of their mutual employer.
I think the whole issue of the railroad is approached in an interesting way in Whispering Smith. With the title character as the hero, his carrying out of his employer’s wishes automatically earns a lot of legitimacy in the eyes of the viewer. Many westerns have portrayed railroad representatives as good for nothing flunkies riding roughshod over the pioneering settlers. By showing Smith to be an upright and admirable character and his immediate superior to be a refined man capable of some understanding, the film gives a human face to the railroad. At the same time though, the point is clearly made that it’s the inflexibility of head office, and their rejection of Smith’s direct appeal, that finally pushes Sinclair into out and out criminality. As such, there is a degree of ambivalence in the script’s attitude. Ultimately the railroad, albeit with the human face of Smith to soften the impact, represents the relentless forward march of progress and the inevitable end of the old freedoms that Sinclair personifies.
Leslie Fenton had a relatively brief directing career and his best work, Whispering Smith and Streets of Laredo, came towards the end of it. Both these movies saw Fenton work with cameraman Ray Rennahan, and together they created some beautiful images. Whispering Smith makes great use of the Technicolor process in the indoor and outdoor scenes, resulting in a film that’s rich and textured. There’s also an economy to the storytelling; the fact that Smith, Sinclair and Marion have a shared history is deftly summed up early on by the simple expedient of using close-ups of the characters’ facial reactions. And then the sequence detailing Sinclair’s descent into banditry sidesteps the need for tedious exposition by employing a brief but spectacular montage of wrecks and robberies.
Whispering Smith saw Alan Ladd appear in his first western in a starring role, and it proved that he had a promising future in the genre. Ladd used his quiet toughness to great effect in film noir throughout the 40s and this new departure for him provided an equally productive outlet. His character is given a strong build up early on and he effortlessly lives up to the deadly reputation. Ladd seemed at ease and at home in a western setting and, while there’s nothing gratuitous about his more violent moments, there’s never the slightest doubt that Smith represents a capable and menacing figure. The actor’s ability to seamlessly blend the gentler, more intimate passages with those highlighting his skills with the gun points the way towards his peerless performance in Shane a few years later. Robert Preston had shared the screen with Ladd in the past, most memorably in This Gun for Hire, but this time their roles were reversed. Preston’s Sinclair is a complex mix of ebullience and repressed fury, and the actor creates an interesting character who is three-dimensional enough to remain sympathetic to the end; bearing in mind the loyalty to Sinclair that Smith retains throughout, this is a vital quality to communicate. Brenda Marshall, who had been excellent opposite Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, was close to her early retirement from the movies at this point. I thought she gave a fine, restrained performance as the woman between Ladd and Preston, conveying very well the regret she felt for the chances of happiness she had lost by marrying the wrong man yet remaining steadfast in her vows – there’s a lovely little moment where Marshall and Ladd speak obliquely about their former relationship, and all their mutual longing and desire is clear to see in their eyes even as they talk around it. The film boasts a particularly strong supporting cast, headed up by the ever reliable Donald Crisp and William Demarest while Frank Faylen also deserves a mention for his turn as the creepily sadistic Whitey Du Sang.
Initially produced by Paramount, the rights for Whispering Smith now reside with Universal who have issued it on DVD in the US. That disc presents the film in the correct Academy ratio and it’s an extremely strong transfer, with no print damage to speak of and rich, vibrant colours. The only extra feature offered is the trailer. The movie is a good example of a late 40s western; it’s a fairly straightforward affair but there are some hints of the complexity that genre pieces from the following decade would more fully explore. It’s also noteworthy for offering Alan Ladd his first serious western role and giving a new direction to his career. All told, the movie is a fine piece of entertainment that looks very attractive.