When Whispering Smith opens, we see a man riding his horse out of the mountains. We hear some lazy music playing as the credits tell us that Alan Ladd is starring in this movie. If you didn’t know better, you might think that winter has passed and Shane has decided to ride back into the valley to visit Joe and Marian Starrett and their son Joey. Of course, this is absurd, because Shane would not be made for another five years.
In this movie, Ladd plays Luke Smith, also known as “Whispering” Smith, because, as it is later explained to us, he is so soft spoken, even when he has the drop on some railroad robbers. This often happens, because Smith works for the railroad in the capacity of a private detective, Western style, of course. But it would seem strange to call a man “Whispering,” however, as in, “How have you been, Whispering?” So he is also called “Smitty.”
The lazy music comes to an end and is replaced something a little more grim as two men with rifles take aim at Smith. They shoot, and the horse rears up and falls over landing squarely on top of the stuntman, who was presumably scraped away so that Alan Ladd could take his place, who, as Whispering Smith, doesn’t seem hurt at all. He sees three men ride away, who we later find out are the Barton brothers, who Smith has been sent to bring to justice for robbing a train and killing a guard. His horse needs to euthanized, Western style, of course, and Smith ends up having to walk the rest of the way.
The scene shifts to a train, where we meet wrecking boss Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston), hail-fellow-well-met. It is his job to clear wrecks off the tracks, and he has just returned from performing that chore, nothing but a “rockslide and a broken arm,” as he puts it. As far as he is concerned, the bigger the wreck, the better. He deplores the way modern equipment and more frequent inspections will soon make his job obsolete. We figure he just means that he likes the challenge, but later we find out that he has been profiting personally from these wrecks, claiming goods have been irreparably damaged and taking possession of them, when in fact they are still in good condition.
A conductor reaches out the window of the moving train and grabs a telegram (don’t ask me how). It is from the president of the railroad, and it says that Luke Smith has been assigned to take care of the Barton brothers. Murray waxes nostalgic about the old days, when he and Smitty (that’s what he calls him) first took jobs with the company, even rooming together until Murray married Marian. Marian? This is another Shane coincidence. And just as Shane and Marian Starrett fell in love, though she was married to Joe, so too do we find out that Smith and Marian in this movie were in love too, but he never thought he was good enough for her, and she married Murray, figuring that Luke (that’s what she calls him) didn’t want her. Later in the movie, Murray begins to catch on to the fact that there is something between the two of them, which strains the friendship.
Anyway, Smith manages to come aboard the train, which is then held up by the Barton brothers, two of whom Smith manages to kill. He is also shot, but the harmonica in his pocket deflected the bullet, so he is not fatally wounded. Murray brings him home with him, and Marian nurses him back to health.
Through conversation, we find out that Murray has a big ranch, and he offers Smitty a partnership to run it, but he is not interested, probably because he does not want to be around the woman he loves while she is married to his best friend. Murray says he has to head into town to turn in his report on the train wreck, which is three days late, to “Shiny Pants,” George McCloud (John Eldredge), the new division superintendent. Murray derisively refers to him as a “college guy,” who has “a little book called How to Run a Railroad.” In other words, McCloud is not a real man, like Murray.
Then some cowhands come riding up, telling Murray that Rostro, a sheepherder, has been grazing his sheep in the North Flats again. Murray tells them to take the dogs and run the sheep into the river. Marian points out that the North Flats is government land, and that Rostro has a right to graze his sheep there if he wants. Murray tells her to keep out of it. “The trouble with Marian,” he says to Smitty, “she’s been mixing in things that are none of her business, and I’m going to break her of it.” Even in 1948, the audience would have regarded this as verbal abuse, even if they might not have used that term. So we are beginning to see the dark side of Murray.
Another clue to his dark side is the conflict with the sheepherder. Even if we didn’t know that Rostro was within his rights to graze his sheep in the North Flats, we would know that Rostro is a good man and Murray is a bad man, because that formula, sheepherder good, cattleman bad, is almost without exception in a Western. (The exception would be Devil’s Doorway (1950).)
Also adding to our suspicions is the fact that Murray and Marian do not have a child. Now, a bad man in a Western might have adult children, like Ike Clanton in a Wyatt Earp movie, but he won’t have a really young child like, well, Joe and Marian in Shane, to bring that movie up once more.
Furthermore, Smith becomes suspicious about Murray’s ranch, wondering how he could have acquired it on the pay he receives from the railroad. He suspects that Murray has been in cahoots with a thief and cattle rustler named Rebstock (Donald Crisp), who has a hired gun named Whitey Du Sang. All in all, it is clear that Murray is corrupt.
Anyway, once Murray gets to town, he turns in his report to McCloud, asking him if he wants it written in “violet ink,” implying, of course, that McCloud is effeminate. Later on, when McCloud arrives at a wreck, Murray offers him some brandy, saying it will “make a man out of you.” McCloud confronts Murray, telling him that the merchandise that is in his wagon is not damaged, and that it is actually loot, and that what Murray is doing is what he, McCloud, was sent to stop. Smith backs him up. Murray becomes angry and tells his men to unload the wagon by smashing the boxes and bags as they do so. One man tosses some material at Sinclair, saying, “Here’s a dress for you.”
Sinclair fires Murray and his men, and Murray becomes so angry that he decides to go in with Rebstock all the way, purposely causing trains to wreck so they can steal the merchandise. Eventually, a guard is killed. From this point, the movie follows an unimaginative plot. Du Sang kills Rebstock and steals his money. Smith kills Du Sang. And finally, Smith has to kill Murray. It is left to our imagination that Smith and Marian, after a decent interval, will get married.
But let’s back up a minute. When a posse is formed to go after Rebstock and his gang for holding up the train and killing the guard, McCloud tells Smith that he can ride and shoot, and that he would like to come along. Smith agrees. Once the shooting starts, however, McCloud ends up being killed.
It would have been an interesting variation in the standard formula if after Smith killed Du Sang, McCloud killed Murray. But the people who produced this movie apparently agreed, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that Murray’s contempt for McCloud as bookish and effeminate was justified. And so, what could have been a refreshing change of pace became routine fare, an unremarkable Western barely worth the effort of watching it.