June 1, 2016

Whispering Smith: Audie Murphy's cold-blooded cop

GUY MITCHELL (LEFT) AND STAR AUDIE MURPHY IN WHISPERING SMITH
I fully realize I might be late coming to the party here, but of late I've been working my way through the 1961 single-season Western Whispering Smith*, starring Audie Murphy and Guy Mitchell.

*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.

5 comments:

  1. Great thoughts. I need to revisit WHISPERING SMITH myself. GetTV is airing it every Saturday as part of its outstanding lineup of somewhat overlooked Western series, which also includes LAREDO and HONDO (the latter is on hiatus at Warner Archive Instant, so getTV is the only place I can watch it and continue the episode guide).

    You mentioned FELONY SQUAD the other day; getTV has added it on Saturday mornings starting this week.

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    1. Which makes me even more frustrated that I can't get Get where I live - a combination of the cable company not carrying it, and living in a specific spot where I don't have a clear shot with an antenna to get the OTAs. Way to make my day better! :)

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  2. I think I mentioned Whispering Smith here a while back, in another context.

    This series was originally planned for the 1959-60 season.
    The Wikipedia article, which is mostly accurate (surprise!), has most of the reasons for the year-long delay, principally Guy Mitchell's injury and Audie Murphy's movie contracts.
    By the time NBC scheduled Smith as a summer replacement in '61, the series was already done and gone; Murphy gave an interview to TV GUIDE at that time, in which he made clear that he hadn't enjoyed making the series, and had no interest in resuming it for any reason.
    Senator Pastore's hearings forced Murphy to publicly defend Smith, which only soured him further on the whole thing; he ended his acting career (which he hadn't enjoyed anyway) not long thereafter.

    Director Don Siegel told this story to a biographer:
    When he and screenwriter Harry Julian Fink were putting together the script for Dirty Harry, they went through several versions of how the sniper should look and behave.
    One of the early ideas was that the sniper should be " ... a man in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase; a man who might sell you insurance ..."
    During this time, Siegel found himself on a flight somewhere, and his seatmate turned out to be - Audie Murphy.
    Murphy had quit acting by this time; he had gotten into business with old friends, and was traveling around the country, selling something (I've misplaced the interview).
    It occurred to Siegel that this was the guy he and Fink had theorized: suit and tie, briefcase, selling - and in an earlier life, he had killed more people than any serial killer ever had.
    The story doesn't go further than that: Dirty Harry was years away from being made, Murphy was killed in a plane crash not long after he met Siegel, no offer was (or could have been) made ... just another Hollywood anecdote.

    So there too.

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    1. I know; I was shocked to see the always-reliable Wikipedia that reliable. Audie Murphy was a most interesting individual, a man who did great things and was tortured by them for many years. A fascinating actor as well.

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  3. I've seen WHISPERING SMITH on sale in its entirety on DVD in places like Walmart with the classic NBC Peacock logo on the box (even though the series was in B&W). You can also buy the full series set at Amazon by using this link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Whispering-Smith-Complete-Audie-Murphy/dp/B003BTO4HM/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1464927027&sr=1-1&keywords=whispering+smith

    A story about Murphy in THE HOLLYWOOD BOOK OF DEATH mentions that ownership of this series actually hurt him, costing him the ranch he'd owned, and he ended up having to take a job in sales, which involved his having to fly out of town, and he was killed on a business flight in 1971.

    I drove by the Audie Murphy Museum exit off of I-30 dozens of times over the years when I'd come back from visiting my parents when they lived in Arkansas. I'll have to stop in and visit one of these years.

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And now for something completely different.