Directed by Leslie Fenton; produced by Mel Epstein (associate producer)
Luke Smith (Alan Ladd), the Nebraska and Pacific Railroad’s champion investigator, is on the trail of a trio of murderous brothers. Quiet and diffident - hence his nickname - Smith’s inquiries lead him to a conspiracy of train wreckers, and he fears his old friend (Robert Preston) may be involved. It will take more than one shoot-out to rid the railroad of the villains Smith finds at work.
If there is one actor who fit the role of someone nicknamed ‘Whispering’, it’s Alan Ladd. The character is noted for his low and quiet manner of speech, and his diffidence; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in which Ladd raised his voice, and his manner was always self-effacing, despite the fact that his handsome looks made him stand out. He does a good job here, though the performance is not exceptional.
The same may be said for most of the actors, all of whom give competent performances. One I found rather annoying was the female lead (Brenda Marshall); her character is at one point called ‘mopey’, which is a good description of her. True, her circumstances are rather disheartening, but they are not enhanced by the gloomy characterisation.
The story was initially interesting. Despite how large the railway loomed in the settlement of the American west - and here in Canada, it was one of the principal elements of unification - there have not been too many westerns that revolved around trains and their technical aspects. The first half of Whispering Smith deals centres on the railway, its management and the handling of wrecks. The salvaging scene is especially involving. But then, that aspect of the film is left behind; it’s true that the second half is about a gang of saboteurs, but it’s little different than many other stories featuring a lawman after an outlaw gang.
Another feature of the first half is the potential of a particularly wicked, squint-eyed villain (Frank Faylen, very different from his role as Ernie the taxi-driver in It’s a Wonderful Life). I expected an exciting duel of some sort between him and Ladd, but it never materialized, and Faylen’s conclusion is almost anti-climactic.
Though in attractive and relatively early colour, Whispering Smith does not take sustained advantage of its better elements and, though from 1948, has more in common with some of Ladd’s lesser efforts from the next decade.