While some old school heroes manage to endure over time, others fade into relative obscurity, which the fate that befell western gunslinger Whispering Smith.
Originally conceived by American novelist Frank H. Spearman in 1906, the railroad detective went on to headline several silent films and eventually a couple talkies, with the first of these being titled, appropriately enough, Whispering Smith Speaks (1935).
However, the character’s biggest showcase came in 1948 with Leslie Fenton’s Whispering Smith that starred Alan Ladd and was shot in vivid Technicolor.
But unlike a lot of other popular book-to-screen heroes of the Post-WWII era, like Zorro or Sherlock Homes, the Whispering Smith character never really got to achieve that transcendent level of popularity again outside of a short-lived TV show in 1961.
In hindsight, it’s too bad that Ladd never got the chance to reprise his role as the soft-spoken cowboy in a proper series of films, since his 1948 version of the character showed a lot of potential.
The plot of Whispering Smith (1948) follows a lot of the same beats as the character’s previous incarnations, where a stoic railroad detective gets entangled with some outlaws who are looking to pull off a series of increasing daring train heists.
However, Smith’s latest case hits a little too close to home after he suspects that life-long friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) has become involved with a group of bandits.
This situation is made even more complicated thanks to the involvement of Murray’s wife Marian (Brenda Marshall), who still has feelings for Smith despite the fact that she chose to marry his best bud.
On a surface level, Whispering Smith has all the scenery and aesthetics that one would want from Golden Age Hollywood western: vast landscapes, dingy saloons, grimacing bad guys and revolvers that generate clouds of smoke whenever they are fired.
But all those standard cowboy trimmings are elevated to a whole new level thanks to the movie’s astounding presentation.
Not only does the Technicolor processing make all of the film’s reds, greens and blues really pop off the screen, but cinematographer Ray Rennahan utilizes a lot of fluid camera movements that gives you a better look at all the impressive set dressing.
For example, when Smith enters a bar midway through the film to confront a villain, the camera follows him pretty much every step of the way without cutting, giving the audience a perfect view of every nearby extra and their unique costuming.
As a result, the world of Whispering Smith doesn’t look like a cheap studio backlot like so many lesser-quality westerns of the time. Instead, everything feels simultaneously lived-in and larger-than-life, which isn’t an easy feat to pull off on film.
But the movie’s main draw outside of all its gorgeous surroundings is the core relationship between Smith and Sinclair, which forms the thematic and narrative backbone of the entire story.
In a very short amount of time, the movie establishes everything you need to know about these two men, their past adventures and the decisions that have brought them to this point in their respective lives.
Smith’s obviously chosen the path that’s more befitting of an archetypal western hero: a travelling loner and gun-for-hire who doesn’t leave a lot of room for personal attachments.
Meanwhile, Sinclair decided to carve out a life that is much more relatable to a post-WWII audience, where he’s left his fighting days behind him to settle down and run his own business (in this case, a ranch).
But, in a bold move, the filmmakers decided to make the relatable everyman the antagonist of the picture, with Sinclair’s growing resentment towards Smith and his dissatisfaction with the idea of making an honest living gradually turning him to the dark side.
This central conflict works well on the page and it is made even better thanks to Ladd and Preston’s stellar performances. Not only do the pair have great chemistry as life-long friends, but they also do a great job of playing off each other as reluctant enemies.
In fact, the duo’s bond is so strong that you wish they could just put their guns down and resolve everything with a couple shots of whiskey instead of resorting to shots of lead.
Admittedly, Sinclair’s heel turn in the latter half of the film does feel a little rushed.
One second the rancher is deeply conflicted about the prospect of teaming up with a group of outlaws, and the next he’s gleefully robbing trains in a fast-paced montage.
I understand that the filmmakers didn’t have a lot of time to work with, with the runtime clocking in at just under 90 minutes, but they could have included at least a couple extra scenes to make his transition a little more believable.
And without getting into too many spoilers, the film’s ending suffers from a similar kind of problem.
Like a lot of older movies, Whispering Smith (1948) doesn’t really feature a prominent denouement, which means the credits roll basically the microsecond the climax is over.
As a result, several plot threads are left dangling, with the film’s main romantic storyline between Smith and Marian not getting a proper resolution.
But despite these shortcomings, Whispering Smith (1948) still packs a real wallop on a visceral level, with enough emotional complexity bubbling beneath the surface to give the film real depth.
It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is rounded out by a terrific supporting cast, who give standard western archetypes like the old train conductor and town sheriff just enough dimension to keep things interesting.
A special mention should go out to veteran character actor Frank Faylen, whose Whitey Du Sang should really belong in the Henchman Hall of Fame for his cold-blooded stare alone.
And while this film doesn’t represent the peak of Ladd’s talents as a leading man in a western , that would come later in Shane (1953), he still injects Whispering Smith (1948) with enough pathos and gravitas to give the story the emotional anchor it needs.
With all this in mind, I still think its strange how Frank Spearman’s original creation largely disappeared from the entertainment landscape following this 1948 film, with NBC providing the character with a brief 26-episode revival on the small screen 13 years later.
I guess some pop culture figures just don’t stand the test of time or are limited in terms of their ability to adapt to emerging cultural trends.
But if you want to take a break from all the morally compromised anti-heroes that dominate most modern movies and TV shows, you could do a lot worse than the classic good-guy heroics featured in Leslie Fenton’s Whispering Smith.
Corner store companion:
Bush’s Best Original Baked Beans (because it’s not fancy, but it gets the job done)
-Release date: Dec. 9, 1948
-Budget: $2 million (estimated)
-Box office gross: $2.8 million (US)
-Author Frank Spearman modeled the character of Whispering Smith off of real-life lawmen from the old west, including Timothy Keliher, Joe Lefors and James L. “Whispering” Smith.
-Screenwriters Frank Butler and Karl Kamb were nominated for a WGA Award (Best Written American Western) for their work on Whispering Smith (1948).
-Outside of the 1948 film, Whispering Smith’s most famous outing is probably the short-lived 1961 TV series of the same name. The show starred Audie Murphy in the title role, with his version of the old west police detective operating out Denver, Colorado. NBC only ended up airing 20 of the program’s original 26 episodes, since the studio was constantly defending the show’s “mature content” from various groups, including the US Senate. Currently, you can watch the entire 1961 series on YouTube.