The Duel at Silver Creek

Pulp, a word that usually ends up being employed in a derogatory way. It suggests the cheap, the disposable, and that sense of something a bit crude and tawdry is never far from the surface. It carries around the sour taste  of intellectual snobbery, a self-aware superiority that drains the  joy from entertainment. But, let’s not forget that entertainment and art are under no obligation to remain stand-offish strangers. Frankly, I like pulp material and always have, long before I became aware of the negative connotations assigned to the term by some, or was even aware of the term itself for that matter. As with so many other forms of artistic expression, it worked its way into my consciousness from an early age, entrancing and enchanting an eager mind. In short, this is where the seeds of my lifelong affection for cinema, literature and countless other art forms was first sown. And so to the The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), a film that is unashamedly and satisfyingly pulpy.

The story is a simple one, telling a tale of claim jumpers, manipulation and revenge. The bulk of the action takes place in and around the titular town of Silver Creek, where the villains have set up an outwardly respectable front. The town is served by a lawman going by the colorful name of “Lightning” Tyrone (Stephen McNally), renowned for his speed with a gun but hampered by an injury following a run-in with the aforementioned criminals. The murder of a friend adds a personal element to the marshal’s motivations, and this hunger for a reckoning is shared by his newly acquired ally, a youthful gambler and gunman known as The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy). The efforts of these two to chase down the claim jumpers forms the basis of the plot but it all gets a little more complicated when a layer of romance and intrigue appears in the shape of Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), a particularly devious addition to the limited but frequently impressive roster of western femme fatales.

There are a number of things which jump out at you while watching this movie. Firstly, it’s a Universal-International production so it has the distinctive and unmistakable look that can be found in all of the studio’s output of that era. The Technicolor cinematography of Irving Glassberg is quite beautiful at times, and the shadowy nighttime interiors are rendered in an especially attractive and evocative way. It’s in these moments that a film noir flavor is most noticeable, and that aspect is highlighted both by the intermittent voiceover provided by McNally and the calculated and ruthless machinations of Domergue. Then there are the character names – Lightning Tyrone, The Silver Kid, Johnny Sombrero, Dusty Fargo, Tinhorn Burgess, Rat Face Blake, etc – carrying that unreal yet alluring quality of something ripped from a comic strip. Presiding over all this is Don Siegel, a man still learning his trade at this stage – the pacing is a little off in the second act – but already  showing the visual economy that can be found in his best work.

With a plot-driven, action-oriented piece of filmmaking the characterization is always going to come in a very distant second place. Audie Murphy and Stephen McNally were highly capable actors, the former still on the learning curve but growing in confidence all the time while the latter was an experienced and solid second lead/support man. Seeing the names of Murphy or McNally in the credits generally means a movie is worth watching, in my opinion. Neither one is asked to stretch himself particularly here in pretty one-dimensional roles, but they never offer less than good value. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a  great fan of Faith Domergue, I’ll freely admit she did fit the femme fatale mold quite snugly and she vamps very successfully in this part. Susan Cabot is cast in a tomboyish part which, while attractive enough in its own way, feels like a bit of a waste. I think the main weakness though comes from the rather insipid bad guys. While Domergue’s flashiness was always going to overshadow them Gerald Mohr and Eugene Iglesias don’t provide much of a threat to compensate. On the other hand, Lee Marvin does make a definite impression as a loudmouthed townsman in one of his earliest roles.

Looking around at what is available for viewing nowadays, it has to be said that fans of classic westerns have much to grateful for. The vast majority of Audie Murphy’s movies are now accessible in good to excellent quality – a handful are still only viewable via sub-par editions – although it doesn’t seem all that long ago that The Duel at Silver Creek was one of the few that could be picked up easily. I don’t believe it’s been upgraded to Hi-Def but it still looks good to my eyes. If the film isn’t going to offer any new insights, it has to be said it still provides a powerfully enjoyable way to pass an hour and a quarter, which is never a bad thing. That, I feel, is as good a way as any to round off 2019 and to wish everyone a happy, fulfilling and successful 2020.

27 thoughts on “The Duel at Silver Creek

  1. Thanks for making Audie your last blog for the year. He was something special. He worked with so many notables who became household names and very important in the Hollywood community.
    Lee Marvin, John Saxon, James Arness, Burl Ives, Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster,Audrey Hepburn etc etc
    Too bad none of them reached out when they were riding high to give him a boost up
    Have a great New Year dude

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Duel at Silver Creek is one of my favorite Murphy Westerns. It’s pure fun. The cast work very well together and Susan Cabot is my favorite of Audie’s leading ladies. Domergue makes for a good femme fatale and one scene with her I didn’t see coming.

    Incidentally I just wrote something not about pulp, but about B movies and came to the same conclusion. There’s no reason to look down on this kind of entertainment. It has no pretensions and that’s a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Margot, it is fun and the strong cast are generally good value. Without getting into spoiler territory,I imagine that scene with Domergue you mention would be early on, when we see her ruthlessness?

      The piece you refer to would be your write-up of Follow Me Quietly, a cracking analysis of a very enjoyable little movie. I’d advise any readers here to click that link and head on over to peruse your article. If you don’t mind, I’d like to quote just a little sample here of what you have to say as I think it’s a concise and cogent summation of what can make a B movie special:

      Maybe many Bs were assembly-line products but their directors could be counted on for efficiency, economy and a bit of polish on a tight allowance. They were able to bring the movie in on schedule and on budget. That alone required extraordinary technical skill. And, if the stars were aligned right, these professionals brought style and energy to a product that was expected to have absolutely none.

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  3. Great to have an Audie Murphy at his peak to finish 2019. I very much look forward to what thoughts you will share with us in 2020, Colin.
    I very much share the comments about intellectual snobbery, as well as Margot’s ‘on the target’ thoughts on B movies.
    I celebrated the end of 2019 by (re)watching Randolph Scott’s 1949 modern-day western “THE WALKING HILLS”. I had only seen it once before but this time around was most impressed with the movie. John Sturges on terrific early form and Scott showing what an underrated actor he actually was.
    Death Valley looked stunning on my new transfer.
    Happy New Year, Chum!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, something with Audie Murphy was long overdue here, Jerry.
      I’ve not seen The Walking Hills for a few years and I’m definitely due a revisit. It’s an interesting modern western/noir hybrid with typically tight and sparse early Sturges handling. I last watched it on the, I think now out of print, Scott DVD box set and I recall it looking splendid.
      Happy New Year to you and the family my friend.

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    • THE WALKING HILLS is a solid film having the elements of desert sands, windstorms and lost gold treasure. The character studies of those in search are brought out expertly with elements of distrust and greed. When I think of this film what puzzles me most is the role of Cleve, a Native American, who is Scott’s right hand man and is seen throughout many of the movie’s sequences. Cleve is played by Charles Stevens and was completely uncredited for his efforts. Personally, I felt the role of Cleve rated somewhere between bit and supporting player.

      Liked by 1 person

        • When viewing this film I got the sense the role of Cleve was neatly tailored into the screenplay for Charles Stevens specifically. Maybe a favor to Scott or someone else connected to the film?

          Happy New Year to you also Colin and thank you for RIDING THE HIGH COUNTRY.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Many thanks, Colin.

    Is that Scott box set to which you refer the TCM set? I just got that set for Christmas and it all looks very good if this film is anything to go by.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If it has Coroner Creek, The Doolins of Oklahoma etc, then yes. It’s a great little collection with all the movies looking very fine. For some reason I’d thought it had gone OOP but delighted too if that’s not the case.

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  5. Any movie with Audie Murphy and Steve McNally has to be interesting. Thanks for this review, I did not know about it.
    I have a problem with Westerns because of the un-realistic horsemanship so often on display. It’s just me. As a result I avoid many Westerns that have a lot to recommend them otherwise in story plots and cast.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suppose many of us have elements which rankle or put us off in movies, such things are wholly subjective. If it’s any help, probably 90% of this unfolds within the town so the horse riding is necessarily limited.

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