Whispering Smith


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.



25 thoughts on “Whispering Smith

  1. Not seen this one Colin, I don’t think, which surprises me as I[m a sucker for western with a mystery element (though I saw plenty of Ladd’s movies in my youth so maybe it just ma noggin’). I like the sound of Preston in this film too – he’s an actor who often didn’t seem to really get a fair shake until after his Broadway success in the 50s.


    • Hi Sergio. Both Ladd and Preston are excellent in this – I agree Preston was very underrated in the movies for a long time.
      Although I find that westerns and mysteries often fold nicely into each other – there are actually (maybe surprisingly for some) quite a few common elements in the genres – this film has fewer proper mystery ingredients. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening from early on and, if anything, you get something closer to a noir vibe, despite the colorful imagery.


      • Interesting about the Noir feeling but I suppose that would make sense (especially in view of the earlier Ladd / Preston pairing) – ever tempted to do a post on Ladd’s excellent version of The Great Gatsby?


        • To be honest, I’ve never seen Ladd’s version of The Great Gatsby. It seems a bit of an elusive picture, mind you the same could be said for a lot of Ladd’s stuff. If it weren’t for the European DVD market then even more of his films would be missing in action.


          • You’d think someone would have released the 1949 Gatsby – hopefully this will be remedied by next year with the big budget 3D remake (sounds bad I know but actually the cast is very impressive and the trailer was pretty good I thought).


            • Yeah, the remake should be a good excuse to get the Ladd movie released.
              I’ve seen some disparaging comments about this but I also quite liked the look of the trailer and remain cautiously hopeful.


              • Ultimately of course what they need to do is make the tragedy work because as a narrative it is otherwise very frustrating. And I always thought Ladd captured the sadness of Gatsby extremely well. I think it is all available illegally on YouTube but shan’t link …


                • I see – I shall browse around.
                  Part of what made Ladd so effective as an actor was his ability to reach inside to the dissatisfaction that seemed to blight his life and use that on the screen. All his best performances were tinged with a kind of sadness and regret I think.


  2. Another nice piece, Colin. I’ve only seen this once but liked it very much (felt you represented it very accurately in all respects) and am keen to see it again. I think the late 40s Western was very much on track and there’s nothing to complain about here; even if the genre deepened even more in the 50s, this is a wonderful period with a lot of wonderful Westerns, some great and many others at least very satisfying.

    Along the way toward SHANE–in which Ladd is superb in one of the definitive performances of a gunfighter (“quiet toughness” is a very good description of the way he is and what makes him so effective)–the actor had at least one other Paramount Western that is especially good and I’d like to see again and wish were better known, BRANDED (1951) directed by Rudolph Mate.


    • Thanks Blake. Considering how the western peaked in the 50s, it’s easy to forget that the 40s, and particularly the latter half of the decade, saw lots of excellent movies produced too. Again, those high points didn’t just appear magically. There was a gradual build-up that preceded them.

      Agreed too on Branded. There was a very good DVD of the movie available from Paramount a few years back but it seems to have slipped out of print now.


  3. The french dvd of “Whispering Smith” is very satisfactory. I watched it last winter and was happily surprised. Yet, I can’t say Alan Ladd ever was one of my favorite actors. I had been quite disappointed by his acting in such western movies as Raoul Walsh’s “Saskatchewan” or Delmer Daves’ “Drum Beat”, not to mention “The Badlanders”, which happens to be a western remake of John Huston’s rightly celebrated film noir “The Asphalt Jungle”. I know “Shane” has been unanimously praised in the US, and probably anywhere else, but I keep on having mixed feelings about it, partly because of Alan Ladd’s interpretation which never convinced me (sorry, Colin). I must confess that, for the very first time in a western, thanks to “Whispering Smith”, I enjoyed watching Alan Ladd as much as I was caught by the plot of this overlooked western. It’s worth watching it, and more than once, I’d say.


    • Hi Samuel. We all take different things away from different movies and performers – some of them click with us and some don’t. I think that when it comes to Ladd, there was a distant quality to the man that some viewers may have a problem with. I won’t presume to say that was the issue you had, but I’m aware there are criticisms of his work.

      Of the three films you mentioned, I rate the two by Daves very highly, but then I’m a huge fan of the director anyway. Saskatchewan, which I wrote about here, is a lesser work but still enjoyable.


      • This is a good movie to see before you see Shane. If you see it after you have seen Shane you might feel just a little let down. Alan Ladd was one of the best. I could describe his screen persona in two words: quiet confidence. You just can’t help but enjoy his movies. Whispering Smith, not a great movie but well worth a viewing.


  4. As always, I find your write-up interesting and informative. I saw Whispering Smith some time ago and enjoyed it. However, I would agree with you that I find Shane and Drum Beat to be there at the top of Ladd’s westerns.. Best regards.


    • Thank you Chris.
      I like Drum Beat a lot but I wonder if it will ever be made available in its correct aspect ratio. The Australian DVD is reasonable quality but it’s still a zoomed in widescreen presentation.


  5. Hi Colin, haven’t gotten to my blog reading day yet, but I did a guest post on Speakeasy and thought you might like to read it….it is my first article ON the net, although I always write one on the anniversary of Ward’s death and have written quite a few others. Would love it, if you find the time, for you to comment as a blogger. Have a good many more I would like to get out. It is entitled
    “Wagon Master 1950” and has some previously unknown things about the little movie and also screen catches to back them up. Thanks Colin and have a super day, Keith, (the old lady, LOL).


  6. Hi Colin, Let me thank you for your comment on my Ward Bond article. I replied with a link to your site. Alan Ladd is known to me only through Shane. This looks like a great place to start building my knowledge of his films. Thanks for the heads up. Also, I found an old post of mine after you and a lot of folks had discussed with Toby his article on Hondo. It is at the very end a few months after yall’s post, (yes, born and raised in the South). Wonder if you knew it already. You can find it at http://fiftieswesterns.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/blu-ray-review-hondo-1953/
    Thanks again for the boost to my start at this. Keith, (the old lady, LOL) Tom Correa of The American Cowboy Chronicles has corrected part of his article on Ward and added some things that I gave him. Also left a very complimentary Editor’s note concerning me. http://www.americancowboychronicles.com/search?q=Ward+bond
    Nice that yall will help out a new person. Appreciate it more than you know. Well, guess you were new once also, weren’t you? HAGO, KEITH


    • I would say this movie is a fair place to start off if you want to delve deeper into Ladd’s work, especially if you’re only familiar with his role as Shane.

      Anyway, hope your blogging “career” goes well – you’ve made a good start.


  7. Pingback: Branded | Riding the High Country

  8. I really liked this one. Back in 2008 i took this over for my mother’s to watch. She starts crying half way through and tells me it was the first film my late dad had taken her to. Wow.


  9. Pingback: Streets of Laredo | Riding the High Country

  10. Pingback: Red Mountain | Riding the High Country

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