|GUY MITCHELL (LEFT) AND STAR AUDIE MURPHY IN WHISPERING SMITH|
*Based very, very loosely on the 1948 movie starring Alan Ladd.
I've been attracted to what I've seen of this series for several reasons, not least of which being the unusual decision to stage a standard police story within a conventional Western setting. Murphy and Mitchell star as lawmen Tom "Smitty" Smith and George Romack, but while they ride horses and wear Western hats and gear, they're not deputies, but detectives. Their boss, John Richards, is not the sheriff, but the Chief of Police, who oversees the Denver Police Department. It's quite an interesting idea, the thought of capturing the moment when law in the West begins to transition from the sheriff/marshal mode to that of the contemporary police force. It shows in the stories as well - oh, you could probably find similarities to other Westerns of the time, but unlike most of them this is not a character study but a crime drama. Smith and Romack do more than bring in the bad guys; they look for clues, investigate motives, debate whether or not the obvious suspect is in fact the perp. If you updated the setting to the 50s and put the detectives in suits, you'd have something more akin to 87th Precinct or The Detectives. I don't mean to put Whispering Smith in that category; I'm simply suggesting that, as the always-reliable Wikipedia puts it, "While the Western setting of the series is unique, it is otherwise a standard detective program."
All well and good, and the series often dispenses with other Western tropes, such as the period music. However, the area in which the program's contemporary roots show most dramatically is in the portrayal of its star by Audie Murphy. I've always liked Murphy as an actor; he has a limited range to be sure, but the ominous intensity he brings to such roles is both appropriate and vaguely unsettling. In fact, it's a particular moment from this series that brings the point home most clearly, when we see Smith, almost before our eyes, turn into John Gant, the hired gunfighter from my favorite Murphy movie, No Name on the Bullet.
The moment comes in the climax of the episode "The Deadliest Weapon." Smith and Romack have been assigned to protect Ralph Miller, a gold tycoon whose life has been threatened by an anonymous letterwritter accusing him of a past murder. During the course of the episode three separate attempts on Miller's life fail, and now another anonymous note now says Miller will die at 11:00pm, no matter where he is, no matter what he is doing. As a last-ditch effort, Smith puts him in protective custody and joins him in the cell, while most of the prime suspects are gathered in the office with Romack and the chief.
With the clock ticking down to 11:00, Miller jumps at any little noise, any flicker of movement, while Smitty remains calm, almost dangerously quiet, his words to Miller delivered in an icy coldness. It dawns on the viewer that Miller has become more like a prisoner than a man protected. Suddenly, the clock begins to chime - 11:00. Smith faces Miller, menace radiating from his body, and accuses him of having been part of a group of men that, 19 years ago, robbed a train and killed a man in front of his nephew: "That boy grew up; he's about my age now, and about my build, and he saw that scar on your forehead." With that, he levels his gun directly at the camera - and Miller - and cocks the trigger. A cut to Miller shows the fear in his eyes, while those of Smith remain calm and hard. And in that moment, though you know Smith is the hero of the story and the network censors would never allow him to shoot a man down in cold blood, you're just not sure. It's John Gant, no question about it.
Of course, Smith doesn't hill him; he's after something else and gets it, as the terrified Miller confesses that yes, he was part of the robbery and did kill the man. The accusation in the anonymous letter was true. "Don't kill me! I did it! I did it!" (A confession that probably wouldn't hold up today, but likely would have back then.) As it turns out, Smith isn't actually the nephew of the murdered man - it's a doctor who was the real nephew and was the only one of the suspects with the knowledge to plan three murder attempts that would almost, but not quite, succeed. Smitty figured the doctor was trying to scare Miller into a confession, and decides to bring things to a head by writing the second note himself in order to set up the trap.
It's a good if not great episode, of a good if not great series. But that single moment when for just a second or two you start to think that maybe Smith is the nephew, maybe he will kill Miller - even though you know he won't do it, can't do it, still you're just not sure - well, that kind of moment doesn't come along very often in a series. Matt Dillon, Paladin, other Western heroes of the era, might find themselves in similar situations, but the viewer knows they'll never succumb to temptation. The strength of Murphy's performance, though, is that cold-blooded ambiguity, the very real sense of menace he brings even to the role of a good guy. The fact that he does it without histrionics, without ever raising his voice above normal level, just adds to the power of the scene.
There are other nice moments so far in the series; for example, the obligatory episode featuring the sidekick, where Romack is blackmailed by a pair of former friends who want him to help them with a bank robbery. If he refuses, they'll expose his past as a member of the gang, and to ensure his cooperation, they kidnap his wife. As I say, this is Guy Mitchell's episode, but even here Murphy upstages him, freeing Mrs. Romack with a spectacular stunt that looks very much as if he did the stunt himself.*
*I wouldn't be surprised to find out he'd done something similar in the war; after all, a man doesn't win the Congressional Medal of Honor for no reason. And by the way, the Audie Murphy Museum is right here in Texas - stop in and see it sometime.
Whispering Smith was not without controversy; the Wikipedia article details how the series got in trouble with Congress over its violent content, and I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, considering the harrowing scene I described above. And while this scene would be nothing today - in fact, there are probably a lot of series out there where the protagonist would have shot Miller - I wonder how it went over back in 1961. Perhaps someone should have reminded Congress that the West was a hard place, back then.
There are a few other examples of genre shows set in the West; Shotgun Slade, a noir private eye show with a jazz score, comes to mind, as does The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., although the latter maintains most of the Western conventions despite the futuristic touches. Whispering Smith is something different, a refreshing change of pace, with a lead role that fits its star perfectly. It was a troubled series, and Audie Murphy lost interest in it long before it was done, but it would have been nice to see a few more episodes - it's a series that can grow on a viewer. And it would be nice to see someone do something like this today, a la Hec Ramsey, another show that portrayed Western justice on the verge of the modern age. Use a little imagination like that, and maybe the television Western would still be around.