Whispering Smith (1948)

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Whispering Smith (1948) was a big hit promoted as Alan Ladd’s first colour film and his first western starring role. As the movie’s TCM article notes, if you’re being exact it was neither, since Ladd had done B westerns and appeared in Disney’s colour picture The Reluctant Dragon (1941). But it was a big move for the star into cowboy leads and it is a great picture that I enjoyed. Ladd plays a railroad detective Luke “Whispering” Smith. They call him that because a soft-spoken but deadly hero is always cooler, and as his specific story goes, if you dare rob a train, you should fully expect to hear him whispering behind you when you least expect it. Smitty is on the trail of an outlaw gang suspected in a series of train wrecks and robberies, and it brings him back to his hometown where, after being shot, he’s cared for by his best buddy Murray (Robert Preston) and Murray’s wife Marian (Brenda Marshall), who also happens to be Luke’s old flame.

Murray works for the railroad, and as Luke soon discovers, has gotten rich stealing “damaged” goods from the train wrecks. These crimes and the rekindled attraction between Marian and Luke puts the buddies on a collision course. Murray strays further over to the dark side after being caught and dismissed by the railway company, and he joins crooks Rebstock (Donald Crisp) and his albino henchman Whitey (Frank Faylen). Loyal and caring Smitty does his best to talk Murray to a better path, and even suggests that he and Marian leave town, but Luke’s sympathy is answered with more robbery and a murder. As Luke ends up saying, there’s not much he can do with the cards Murray deals him, and must bring him to justice somehow.

As directed by former actor Leslie Fenton it’s an attractive and fast-moving detective western, and my idea of the best movie comfort food. It looks great thanks to the Technicolor, the parts filmed in the Sierras and the prettily painted trains and buildings of Smitty’s cozy hometown. The cast includes William Demarest as an old friend of Luke’s, John Eldredge as train company manager, Murvyn Vye as one of the outlaw Bartons, and Fay Holden as a boarding house owner and mother figure who gets a sweet scene singing along when Luke plays his harmonica. That little instrument (besides calling to mind Charles Bronson) also saves Luke’s life during one of the movie’s many exciting shootouts.

The Whispering Smith character was based on a real railway detective, made his debut in a 1906 Frank Spearman novel, was seen in several screen adaptations plus a NBC-TV series with Audie Murphy that aired in 1961.

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18 thoughts on “Whispering Smith (1948)”

  1. This is a good movie. It looks fabulous in places and I like Ladd in western roles. I think the western and crime/detective elements work well together, and then there’s the depth of the cast which makes the whole experience even more enjoyable.

    1. Yes the detective-western mix is a winner for me too, there can be many similarities between westerns and crime/noirs anyway, the same plots and character types so often work well in a western. This has such a nice woodsy look with all those darker, rich colours, nice movie in every way.

  2. Fascinating how things can change in Hollywood. The movie that made Ladd a star had Robert Preston billed over him. It’s obvious by the size of the type on the lobby cards that Ladd is the major attraction here. I need to watch “Whispering Smith” again; I don’t think I’ve seen it in about 25 years. Just like “The Proud Rebel,” I apparently saw all my Ladd movies decades ago!

    1. I can’t believe I’d never seen this one before, glad I finally did, and I’m also coming up on 15-20 years now since I’ve seen many of my favourite westerns and will have to start revisiting them soon 🙂 not a bad problem to have I guess, especially when they’ll look so much better than when I rented them on vhs!

  3. I enjoyed this movie tremendously. All in the cast do justice to their roles and I liked when Donald Crisp showed up-I didn’t read the cast list carefully enough initially so it was a surprise! I’m a Ladd fan and this is one of my favorites of his westerns, right below BRANDED, THE PROUD REBEL, and SHANE (of course).

    1. It is great, and feels very much like an early run of the Shane character. Really nice and memorable group of actors. I love Proud Rebel too, haven’t seen Branded though. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Great cast here! I’m another who hasn’t seen this movie in many a year and your great review reminds me it’s well past time that I got a copy.
    I like ‘BRANDED’ even more though, Kristina. Recommend it!!

    1. Oh good another Branded vote, will watch that soon. Enjoyed this very much and in this great cast, there’s such a nice range of villains. The Bartons terrorizing the town in their dusters made for some great images.

  5. A terrific film that looks good and has a lot of story to hold your interest (as if Alan Ladd isn’t enough!). Great write-up and a reminder for a perfect winter Sunday matinee.

    If you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll get a kick out of the Audie Murphy TV show. It plays rather like “Dragnet on the Range”.

    1. Right, perfect matinee material. I’ve never seen the show, sounds good! We were lucky in Canada to have that neat western channel about a decade back, they ran so many great series like that.

  6. Nice cast here and you know I’m big on Ladd flicks. Demarest one of those character players I like to spotlight. I’ve seen the Audie show as it turned up on DVD. And I’ll just bet Brenda Marshall looks great in technicolor. 🙂

    1. Yes she sure does! gorgeous 🙂 I have to catch up on a bunch of Ladd’s –I like him a lot too, such a pleasant presence anywhere and a great cowboy.

  7. I really like this one too–though only saw it once and want to get back to it sometime. Alan Ladd found his place in Westerns right away and this remained one of his best, though I’d definitely give it to SHANE first, then BRANDED after that and probably SASKATCHEWAN third.

    But this is completely satisfying, not just the pace of the action, color and richness of mood and characterization, but those two men around a woman stories so often work well and Robert Preston is always ideal as the more fallible man. The ending of this really packs a punch.

    Interesting to read this now because I just saw Leslie Fenton’s last movie as director, THE REDHEAD AND THE COWBOY, which was new to me. Initially an actor, he finished his career directing and with three Westerns last. The one I just saw was least though it was enjoyable enough–WHISPERING SMITH was best but the middle one that followed STREETS OF LAREDO is very good too.

    1. …and I haven’t seen Saskatchewan either 🙂 so much I haven’t seen! You’re right about the triangle, especially when you have a nice trio of leads like these, and such believable buddies fated to split apart. Love that they spent the time establishing their close friendship before you see hints of Preston’s dark side.

  8. Blake and I don’t always agree but I’m
    totally with him on his choice of Ladd’s top
    three Westerns.
    I think you will love BRANDED…great chemistry
    between Ladd and Mona Freeman.
    SASKATCHEWAN is a visual treat-the scenery
    is jaw dropping,and the great Jay Silverheels has
    far more to do than usual.

    Nice choice and a fine write up-
    here’s to more Westerns on Planet Kristina.

      1. I’m a little late, but I’ll chime in with yet another vote for BRANDED! One of my favorite Ladd’s too…

        It’s been a while since I’ve seen WHISPERING SMITH (1948), but I remember liking it. The Audie Murphy tv show is pretty good too, it also has a lot of detective work amid the western setting.

        1. never too late and always welcome! Excellent, I’m sure to get to Branded very soon, took a detour into suspense drama last few days 🙂 I’ll watch that and Saskatchewan together, I think.. looking forward to them. Cheers!

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