WHISPERING SMITH . It's hard to believe that it took seven years for Paramount to finaly put their most popular matinee idol, Alan Ladd, in a western, especially when you consider the fact that the same studio's very British Ray Milland had already appeared, rather inappropriately, in an oater named CALIFORNIA a few years earlier, but at least Ladd's western debut, however belated, was in the far better than average WHISPERING SMITH, a sagebrush saga that showcased Ladd's unique brand of tight-lipped toughness and sensitivity so effectively that, on the basis of his performance here, Ladd was handed the role of a lifetime (SHANE) by director George Stevens a few years later. 

There's no getting around the fact that Ladd is the primary reason why this solidly directed and acted, but not especially original WHISPERING SMITH is so easy to watch, and contributing mightily to the pleasurable experience is Universal's top-notch full screen transfer of this richly-hued 3-strip Technicolor film. 

THE SPOILERS. This tale of gold and greed in an Alaskan boomtown during the 1890's is a raucous, rip-roaring, and slightly ramshackle affair that comes alive every time legendary Western star Randolph Scott appears onscreen, a considerable feat when you realize that his costars are no less than Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne. What's even more amazing is the fact that perpetual Western good guy Scott is cast here as ----- gulp !  ------the villain! Indeed, he so convincingly injects such a high level of gleeful oiliness and sleaziness into his performance that he easily ties THE SPOILERS up in a pink ribbon and walks away with it. Universal's full screen black and white transfer is one of their better ones , sharp with a fairly confident grey scale,  and very little damage.                              

NO NAME ON THE BULLET.  Star Audie Murphy made scores of good, conventionally plotted and somewhat predictable color "B" westerns for Universal-International, but there's nothing conventional or predictable about this surprisingly thoughtful and well-written, acted and directed film about a hired killer (Murphy) who rides into town and causes paranoia to take over the townsfolk, each of whom believe that the professional assassin is there to kill them. Neatly written, acted, and directed, this film, for which I had modest expectations, took me by complete surprise. The anamorphic 2.35:1 Eastman Color transfer is in excellent shape and the mono 2.0 sound gets the job done. NO NAME ON THE BULLET is a little gem that even non-Audie Murphy fans should consider adding to their collection.

THE PLAINSMAN, on the other hand, is BIG, BIG, BIG, as only a Cecil B. DeMille Western epic could be. DeMille unapologetically, and with little regard for historical authenticity, thrusts us into the tallest of tall tales, somehow managing to interweave classic real-life legends Wild Bill Hickock (Gary Cooper), Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur), Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, and Abraham Lincoln into one spectacular brew, which, while entertaining, should be consumed with a huge hunk of salt. Universal's full screen black and white transfer, while watchable, suffers from considerable grain, and sharpness varies from reel to reel, but if you're in the mood for a tall-tale western fantasy THE PLAINSMAN should be your meat and potatoes.

POSSE. What begins as a rather ordinary Western soon becomes an extremely interesting character study, courtesy of producer-director-star Kirk Douglas, whose sharp portrayal of a glory-seeking publicity-hungry U.S. Marshall who doesn't just hunt down and capture fugitives, he makes sure a photographer is around to record his crime-fighting exploits and bolster his political aspirations, is the glue that holds this rather well-written oater together, though Douglas' good instincts are almost undermined by the florid overacting of a wildly miscast Bruce Dern. (Mr. Douglas gives a hilarious account of his failed attempts to get Dern to stop "acting" in the best star autobiography I have ever read, THE RAGMAN'S SON). Paramount's anamorphic 16:9 transfer is virtually perfect, as is the new reprocessed 5.1 Surround soundtrack, which adds an ambience missing in the also included restored mono track.            

HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL is probably the most compelling "adult" western series ever produced for television, and the fact that Paramount has just released the entire first season is reason for exultation among dyed-in-the-wool Western fans. I'd never even seen one episode of this series before, but I must admit I'm now hooked, for not only is Richard Boone's Paladin one of the most off-beat and charismatic Western antiheroes ever, the level of writing has far more richness and complexity than one expects to find in a 50's television series.

Paramount's black and white full screen transfers are in fairly good shape, but I'd recommend watching them on on a normal sized television and not on a large screen, as it's important to remember all of these episodes were shot when the biggest t.v.'s were 21 inches. I hope this HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL collection sells well enough to warrant a second season release. It certainly deserves to.    

HANGMAN'S KNOT. While it's not my habit to review dvd's I've yet to receive, as Columbia has just informed that I won't be receiving HANGMAN'S KNOT in time for inclusion in this article, I feel the need, due to the film's high quality, to give it a mention anyway. In my opinion, HANGMAN'S KNOT is Randolph Scott's best non-Budd Boetticher directed Columbia Western, and from the very first scene of the slaughter of a band of Union soldiers by a group of Confederates who are unaware that the Civil War ended two weeks before, this HANGMAN'S KNOT, expertly written and directed by Roy Huggins, and excellently acted by Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Richard Denning and Claude Jarman Jr., and of course, the great Scott, packs an unusually strong wallop. 

While I'm obviously unable to comment on the transfer quality of the dvd, I will say that HANGMAN'S KNOT looked quite good when it was recently shown on the Western Channel, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.



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