Monday, 18 September 2017

Movie Review: Whispering Smith (1948)


A thoughtful western tackling themes of friendship and lost love, Whispering Smith packs action, tension and drama in a zesty package.

Rail company detective Luke "Whispering" Smith (Alan Ladd) reconnects with his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) while on a mission to track down the Barton Brothers gang. When he finally catches up with the bandits at a telegraph office, Smith is wounded but kills two of the three outlaw siblings. Smith recovers at Murray's house, reigniting his passion for his lost love Marian (Brenda Marshall), who is now Murray's wife.

Smith doggedly goes after Blake Barton, the sole surviving brother, and finds him hiding under the protection of influential landowner Barney Rebstock (Donald Crisp) and his gunslinger henchman Whitey Du Sang (Frank Faylen). Smith starts to suspect that his friend Murray, who runs the rail company's local wrecking crew, may be involved in sordid business with Rebstock. With his allies Bill Dansing (William Demarest) and George McCloud (John Eldredge), Smith starts investigating Murray and Rebstock, creating a deep rift in a lifelong friendship as well as romantic complications.

Based on the often-adapted novel by Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith is a superior western, buoyed by an almost perfect mix of action, character conflict, romance, secondary depth and high production values. Directed in rich Technicolor by Leslie Fenton, the film is a feast for the eyes. Paramount constructed a large western town complete with an active railway for Whispering Smith, and the set became a much-used stage for many later productions. Here Fenton creates a bustling environment nestled against mountains and lush nature, with several highlight scenes featuring 1870s-era trains up close and at their noisy best.

The heart of the film is a love triangle complicated by an established friendship and greed, and the complexities of the human relationships transcend what is expected in most westerns. Luke and Murray absolutely care for each other, but start to drift apart over Murray's less than honest dealings at the train wreck sites and his alliance with Rebstock. The resulting imbalance opens the door for Marian and Luke to start imagining a different future, but here again the character depth shines through: Luke cares about doing right by Murray just as much as he cares for Marian, meaning there are no easy decisions.

Alan Ladd, Robert Preston and Brenda Marshall bring the three central characters to vivid life. The acting is admirably stoic yet nuanced enough to carry the narrative weight. Ladd in particular portrays a range of emotions mostly through the intensity level of the fire in his eyes, while Preston is more emotive, capturing increasingly frantic attempts at self-delusion. In her penultimate screen role, Marshall shines as the dignified wife potentially losing a husband but regaining a true love.

A large part of the film's appeal resides in well-developed secondary characters adding plenty of texture. Donald Crisp has rarely been more intimidating as a land baron running his own black market. By his side is Frank Faylen, delivering a simply chilling performance as bloodless albino gunslinger Whitey Du Sang, his dead eyes always fixated on his next victim-to-be. William Demarest, Fay Holden and John Eldredge ensure that there is talent in every role that matters.

Fenton stumbles a bit in staging the action scenes, most of which appear hurried and awkwardly edited when it matters most. Otherwise Whispering Smith is a western that speaks softly but leaves an impressively loud impression.






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