Smoke Signal


Films that adopted a pro-Indian stance can be found throughout the 50s, some more explicit in their sympathies than others. Smoke Signal (1955) offers an interesting variation on this trend; it would be inaccurate to refer to it as directly pro-Indian, rather it provides a critique of anti-Indian thinking. By casting a traditionally heroic actor in the central role and keeping his motivation slightly ambiguous for much of the running time – personally, I feel that greater ambiguity would have made the tale even more fascinating, but more on that later – it challenges our conventional genre perceptions. Add in an unusual setting, with the characters running the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and the ingredients are in place for a compelling western.

The story is built around Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), a former captain in the US Cavalry who deserted, joined the Utes and turned renegade. However, Halliday has been captured by the army and is being held prisoner at a remote fort until he can be transported for court-martial. The opening sees Captain Harper (William Talman) and his patrol coming upon the fort that’s currently under siege. Harper’s arrival puts him in command of the tiny garrison which has been whittled down by relentless attacks. He has a special interest in seeing the captive called to account since his brother was killed in a battle with a band of Utes led by Halliday. Apparently, these Utes have been massing and forming alliances with other tribes to stage a spectacular uprising. Harper is initially skeptical about this but when proof is provided it becomes evident that holding out in the fort is not going to be an option. Although reluctant to do so, he takes Halliday’s advice and decides to evacuate the fort, bringing some abandoned boats and making a break for it down the uncharted river. The majority of the running time is spent on this perilous journey, where the small band of survivors must fend off the harassing Utes and struggle to overcome the dangers posed by nature. While Halliday protests his innocence of the charges against him at the beginning, he avoids mention of this for most of the journey. Instead, we’re left to wonder and, like the desperate group around him, have our doubts raised only by his seemingly selfless actions and determination to see his captors to safety. Gradually, as Halliday’s knowledge of the Indians and their tactics proves more effective, he gains the trust of a few of his companions. His strongest allies are the late garrison commander’s daughter (Piper Laurie) and a grizzled old campaigner, Sergeant Miles (Milburn Stone), he once led. The turning point comes when the inflexible Harper, seemingly motivated by spite, orders Miles to undertake a suicidal mission. From here on, sympathy shifts to Halliday, the sole exception being the callous and brutal Lieutenant Ford (Rex Reason). The emphasis of the film is on the group dynamic as much as anything, and the shifting loyalties is an important part of what keeps the viewer’s interest alive. Who, if anyone, will make it to journey’s end is always uppermost in our thoughts and the battle for hearts and minds, ours as much as the characters on screen, ensure the tension is maintained right to the last scene.

Director Jerry Hopper made a series of good if fairly unremarkable movies in the 50s (Secret of the Incas perhaps being the most notable) before embarking on a long and successful career in a string of well-known TV shows. Hopper, and cameraman Clifford Stine, get good value from the Grand Canyon locations, the towering rock face being both visually impressive and also hammering home the bottled up, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it has to be said that while the location work is extremely attractive, there’s far too much reliance on obvious and distracting back projection. Hopper’s handling of the action scenes is just fine, the sporadic battles and skirmishes blend well with the ever-present threat of the raging river and keep the story moving along. I think my biggest complaint relates to the script, and the ending in particular. For me, this was altogether too pat and slightly unsatisfactory – I feel that not only does Harper behave out of character but he gets off a bit lightly too.

Smoke Signal is really Dana Andrews’ picture all the way. Writing of this actor before, I commented on his tendency to internalize his feelings and play things down. That understated quality is highly appropriate for the character of Brett Halliday, a man to whom being true to his own inner convictions has brought only the distrust and enmity of others. I think Andrews was capable of hiding things so well that it’s a pity the scrip didn’t capitalize on this talent and keep the viewers guessing a little longer about the true nature of his character – it would have added more depth and uncertainty. There’s an excellent example of Andrews’ carefully modulated playing in one of the early scenes, when Halliday and Harper first meet. Harper, full of scorn and bitterness, reaches out to snatch away the native amulet Halliday wears round his neck. The flash of anger and resentment that briefly flits across Andrews’ momentarily clouded features, not much more than a twitch of muscle and a hardness of eye, tells us that this charm is special to him and that Harper’s action has gravely insulted him. When it comes to screen acting it’s the little things, those fleeting gestures and tics, that often speak loudest. William Talman tended to get cast in villainous, or at least unsympathetic, parts. He’ll always be remembered as Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s eternal foe, but he was exceptional as the psychotic bad guy in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. In this film though he portrayed a man bound by his own rigid code, a by the book disciplinarian with a narrow and inflexible perspective. Talman’s performance, alongside Rex Reason’s thuggish characterization, is what lends Smoke Signal its pro-Indian status. As such, it earns its credentials almost by default; the film paints the Utes’ opponents as deeply prejudiced rather than showing the Indians themselves in an especially positive light. As the only woman in the movie Piper Laurie spends much of her time torn between Andrews and Reason, but does well providing a non-partisan viewpoint. In supporting roles, there’s strong work from Milburn Stone, Robert J Wilke and Douglas Spencer.

Pegasus in the UK licensed Smoke Signal from Universal for their DVD release. The disc presents the film in a nicely framed 2:1 anamorphic transfer. The image looks a little soft in some places but there’s no real damage on show and the colours are bright and strong. There are no extra features whatsoever offered, just the main menu and scene selection. Anyway, the Pegasus release is the only one, so far as I’m aware, that presents the movie in the correct aspect ratio and with anamorphic enhancement. Universal westerns from the 50s are always worth seeking out – they’re generally attractive to look at and often feature plots that throw out something a little different. Smoke Signal is a solid, medium grade western that works pretty well. Andrews is dependable and credible, Hopper’s professional direction keeps it all moving along ensuring the pace never flags, and the location work is very welcome. Generally, this is a tight and entertaining mid 50s western that I’m happy to have in my collection.~


31 thoughts on “Smoke Signal

  1. Colin, very much enjoyed your article. I am just barely familiar with Dana Andrews, so this looks like a good one to start with, although Milburn Stone alone would attract me to it. Thanks for the “heads up”….I will be adding it in a few days……..then you may have another comment! Keith


    • Keith, this is a pretty entertaining movie with Andrews but I wouldn’t want to sell it as the best he was in. In western terms, both Canyon Passage and The Ox-Bow Incident are his standout pictures. This one is more of the quality of the likes of Three Hours to Kill; that’s not meant as a criticism though, more an effort to contextualize it.

      Outside of westerns, of course, he did some phenomenally good work in film noir. As a starting point, you could do a lot worse than start with his work with Preminger: Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel and Daisy Kenyon.


      • Thanks Colin, Will try the Westerns first as that is what the book is about, the uncredited stuntmen and character actors. I will send for the two you mentioned. FINALLY have Dobe’s book, Company of Heroes on the way…..found one I could afford! Hope to get Roberson’s and Johnson’s soon. Am getting close to putting the book together. Thanks again for you time and help. Have gotten Smoke Signal today and will remember what you said as I watch it. Keith


          • Will do, Colin. Always comment on the blogs I read. Wonder if you would consider adding yourself as a blogger on my little article about Ward. I have three….four would be even nicer, LOL. I have started a blog, just have to figure it out a bit! Keith


              • Hmm, I meant put your name at the top with the other three bloggers, Colin. But, if you republished it, would that be OK with Katrina? Remember, I am very new at this and don’t know blogger etiquette.
                I saw you don’t have an article on Ward. This is not meant to be anything like a biography. I just try to add a little something every year that other people don’t know. You know how these things work. Katrina has been good….wouldn’t want to do anything wrong with her. HAGO, Keith


                  • Thanks Colin. Now, I have a page on my as yet unpublished blog that has listings for other bloggers i like. Do I have permission to list your blog? Also, I wondered if from time to time, I would be able to post one of your articles or have you collaborate on one of mine? And, of course, if you care to use my article of part of it, you are most welcome to. So far, Kristina’s is the best Bio on Ward I have seen, and she and i are going to write an addendum type thing to correct and add to it.
                    Really enjoyed SMOKE SIGNAL and have the other two you recommended coming soon. Thanks again and HAGO, KEITH


                    • I’d be delighted if you listed my site. And by all means, you’re welcome to reblog anything that takes your fancy – just slip in a credit.
                      I wish you success with the new site and if I can assist in any way don’t hesitate to ask.


  2. Great review Colin and I think you make a really valid point about that sometimes fairly subtle distinction in films from the era that are more modern and sympathetic to the plight of the Indians. I’ve not seen this one but the DVD certainly sounds tempting – by the way, have you got the new books on Andrews, HOLLYWOOD ENIGMA? It came out last month and the reviews I’ve seen have been pretty positive. There is also James McKay’s DANA ANDREWS: THE FACE OF NOIR from a couple of years ago but which I have yet to get hold of (bit on the expensive side unless you’ve got a Kindle).


    • Hi Sergio. No, I haven’t had the opportunity to pick up the new book – Carl Rollyson’s Dana Andrews – Hollywood Enigma – yet, although it is on my shopping list. I too have heard lots of good things about it.

      The Pegasus DVD is quite acceptable although the price seems to have risen recently; it was a good deal cheaper when I picked it up on release.


  3. Instantly disposable trivia department – I just noticed the hero is called Brett Halliday, just like the creator of detective Michal Shayne (a pseudonym for Davis Dresser …). Apparently Charlton Heston was approached for the main role, which i suppose would make sense after the collaboration with Hopper on INCAS and PONY EXPRESS


    • Yes, I noticed that too. I even did a minor double-take when I heard the name of Andrews character for the first time.
      I could imagine Heston in the lead in this movie, although I reckon he would have slightly overwhelmed the other cast members in a way that Andrews didn’t.


  4. I was very pleasantly surprised when I watched this a few months ago. Going from the title I was expecting something much more routine but it turned out to be a notch or two above that. No classic certainly, but it was well-written and well-acted, and had an intelligent approach. I agree that the ending was a bit unconvincing…as if they were just trying to wrap the whole thing up too quickly. Roles for women in 1950s westerns didn’t often give the actors much to work with but I thought that Piper Laurie’s character here had a bit more depth than usual. She’s a good actress too of course and was able to make the most of it. A good one…and I would go along with your recommendation of the Peagsus disc.


    • Dafydd, I also approached this film with fairly modest expectations, which is probably the sensible thing to do. It was, for me anyway, a relatively unknown movie and I found it more rewarding than some more hyped titles.
      I think Laurie benefits from being the only woman in the movie and not being handed one of those helpless, damsel in distress roles. The romantic angle blends in well and doesn’t feel tacked on, and Laurie gets to muck in during the action scenes too.

      Regarding Pegasus, I have only good things to say about the Universal titles they have put out over the last year and a half or so – streets ahead of the lousy transfers they’d been offering in the past.


  5. Hi Colin….I appreciate your turn-of-phrase in that Smoke Signal provides a critique of “anti-Indian thinking”.

    I am always struck by the disconnect between such ideas within a film and the advertising for a movie…i.e. that particular poster does NOT give an indication of any nuanced approach, in my opinion. It appears to posit the cliche of “white society vs. Native American”….marketing departments often disappoint, don’t they?

    Thanks for the review.


  6. Oh well, sorry but I wasn’t too impressed having now seen Smoke Signal. I kept making comparisons with The Last Wagon which was so superior , with an outsider proving his worth.
    Terrific locations but,as you say, the back projection spoiled a lot of the river scenes.
    I thought Dana walked through it. It didn’t really call for much from him. William Talman was the more interesting character. I agree his turnabout at the end wasnt convincing.
    I found Piper Laurie a bit bland, speaking in that deep monotone.Felicia Farr, the comparable character in Last Wagon was much better.
    Still glad to see any Dana Andrews film but I would rate it as average,could have been better!


    • Fair enough. The Last Wagon does have some points that bear comparison but, as you say, it’s a superior film. I had no problems with Andrews work in this though, except for the fact that his character wasn’t allowed to display a little more ambiguity a little longer. Still, I see that more as a scripting issue than anything. Talman’s role is certainly interesting but again it could have been developed further.


    • I hope you have fun at the convention and do get to meet Ms Laurie. As it happens I just watched her in Dawn at Socorro the other day and enjoyed both the movie and her performance.


  7. Pingback: Secret of the Incas | Riding the High Country

  8. A better film than I was expecting from director Hopper whose work i always found rather pedestrian. Though I must admit to a fondness to his 1954 film, ALASKA SEAS. This one here works right down the line with all the elements meshing well. Miss Laurie I always find easy on the eyes. The supporting cast in good with the always solid Robert Wilkie and M. Stone involved. Nice location work and a decent story help everything right along as well.


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