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.