The Duel at Silver Creek/Ride a Crooked Trail/No Name on the Bullet
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: AUGUST 4, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
He held the honor of being the most decorated living combat veteran. Audie Murphy, having single-handedly held off hordes of incoming German soldiers in France during World War II (and then leading a counterassault despite being out of ammo), earned literally every military service award that was available- even the Medal of Honor, which is most commonly given posthumously.
But Murphy wasn’t one to rest on his many laurels. Having been taken in and groomed as a performer by James Cagney, Murphy, in 1948, launched a career that spanned over forty films, the short-lived television series Whispering Smith (prompted by the Alan Ladd film), and even some success as a songwriter. In an age of uncountable Westerns and no shortage of war films, movie stardom suited the baby-faced Murphy. Though a sufferer of PTSD (then called “battle fatigue”), he eventually he would be persuaded to play himself in 1955’s To Hell and Back, which proved to be Universal’s biggest film until Jaws opened twenty years later.
It’s been said that while Audi Murphy might not have been the greatest actor, he was a reliable presence and the camera loved him. With the three 1950s Westerns in this great new box set from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, it becomes apparent that in addition to those accolades, Murphy was in fact a perfectly decent actor in the right roles. The two films here from the later part of the decade are particularly demonstrative of his evolved talent and confident presence.
Below, in chronological order, are reviews of Don Siegel’s The Duel at Silver Creek, Jesse Hibb’s Ride a Crooked Trail, and Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet. They range from surprisingly good to sublimely terrific and are all done justice in the Audie Murphy Collection.
The Duel at Silver Creek
DIRECTED BY DON SIEGEL/1952
Short, sweet, and packing a wallop is director Don Siegel’s first Western, the inaccurately titled The Duel at Silver Creek. The title is only inaccurate because, as an IMDb user points out on the film’s page, that a duel is between two people, as opposed to the large, dozens-strong gun battle at the climax of the movie. Also, Silver Creek itself is barely mentioned throughout the film, hardly worthy of inclusion in the title. (But then again, neither was Fargo in Fargo).
No one, however, ought to be watching Westerns in expectation of accuracy, historical, grammatical, or otherwise, lest we cave to notions that the Old West was populated by movie star-esque sharpshooters and that so many town marshals were in fact not glorified hired killers. The Duel at Silver Creek makes good on depicting both venerable fabrications, with Stephen McNally (Woman in Hiding) as Marshal “Lightning” Tyrone ticking each of these boxes.
But The Duel at Silver Creek, Western comfort food though it is, wears that star proudly, not foolishly. Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Gun Runners, Madigan, Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, The Shootist) bursts forth with an action-packed caper of uneasy alliances of heroes and crooked cons hiding in plain sight. The movie’s quite the crowd-pleaser, delivering a taut, rapid-fire morality tale that is not without its complexities.
When “Lightning” suffers an injury that compromises his ability to out-draw the bad guys, he opts to carry on as though nothing’s wrong. This is merely the first of his questionable decisions and incorrect assumptions that effectively muddy his standing as not only an effective lawman but the film’s token upstanding protagonist. Among his poor choices is falling for the perpetually ruffle-dressed Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue) whom he uncreatively dubs “Brown Eyes”. It’s no secret to the viewer that Opal is trouble; a femme fatale who’s only real purpose is to derail our hero. Her brother is the leader of the claim jumpers, a mysterious organization that Lightening is out to stop. But Opal’s beauty and outward respectability (i.e. whiteness and wealth) shield her and her brother in plain sight.
Enter Audie Murphy as Luke Cromwell, The Silver Kid. Murphy as an actor actually outshines McNally and the rest, infusing an appealing shot of charisma into what proved to be a very uneasy alliance with Lightning. The movie is short (too short, in fact, by newly established Universal International running time edicts) but pretty solid, proving Siegel’s action chops and showcasing Murphy through the back door. As for Lightning’s anti-Mexican and blind trust of the corrupt wealthy white folks, a thinking viewer can discern that the movie itself sees these shortcomings as the character’s and is content to allow him to soak in his prejudice until the very last moments. Granting Lightning the additional role of voiceover narrator (perhaps the most useless voiceover narration ever) does perhaps muddy the waters, though.
The Duel at Silver Creek, though shot in Technicolor, isn’t the most beautiful restoration to come down the Blu-ray lately. The disc does however look and sound quite good, with a terrific audio commentary track by Film Historian Toby Roan. Siegel’s film is an outstanding inclusion in Kino’s three-disc Audie Murphy Collection.
Ride a Crooked Trail
DIRECTED BY JESSE HIBBS/1958
Chronologically the second of the three films included in Kino Lorber’s Audie Murphy Collection, 1958’s Ride a Crooked Trail is a fairly rare Western in its dialogue-centric propensity. Directed by To Hell and Back director Jesse Hibbs, there’s no shortage of fine-to-middling wordsmithing going on at the screenplay level (which was written by Borden Chase of Red River and Winchester ‘73 fame, from a story by George Bruce), including double entendres and, primarily, riffs on Murphy’s character’s name, Joe Maybe. While it’s true that building gags around a name that was clearly concocted for the sake of said gags can be rather cheap, Ride a Crooked Trail goes about it very well. Screenwriter Chase not only gets at every variation on someone muttering “Maybe” and then Murphy comically reacting, but also threading the moments well throughout and dropping them with casual aplomb.
In the film, The Powers That Be can’t learn the truth that Murphy’s tin-star-wielding character is actually the wanted outlaw Joe Maybe. The film opens as he is trying to hightail it out of the last town, pursued by its valiant marshal. When things end badly for that marshal, Maybe happens to end up with his star. When he arrives in the next town with a bank robbery plan in mind, the local judge (Walter Matthau) is quick to mistake him for the dead man whose name is on the star- and almost quicker to assign him the job of marshal. Next thing Maybe knows, he’s caught up in playing the part of a lawman in a town he came to plunder.
It turns out the pay’s not bad and the gig even comes with a fully outfitted house, complete with an indoor bathroom. Though still plotting the robbery, Maybe begins to slowly but surely settle into his role. He’s helped along in feigned domesticity by the appearance of an old flame from New Orleans, the “fancy gal” Tessa (Gia Scala) whom he promptly strongarms into posing as his wife. They even end up with a rascally orphan named Jimmy (Eddie Little) living with them. But, as respectability and regular pay threaten to fully devour the once-lean n’ mean Joe Maybe, the dangerous gang that Tessa is affiliated with (led by the expressionless Sam, played by odd-duck actor Henry Silva) rides in- also targeting the bank. Will Joe join them? Maybe!
Ride a Crooked Trail is essentially a sly case of mistaken identity stretched out to eighty-eight rather lite minutes. Along the way, it takes in greater weight as the old judge begins to put two and two together. And you’d better believe that any notion that crosses the judge’s mind will be stated plainly. It’s as though Matthau got hired for his trademark voice, and the producers are going to get every penny’s worth. Murphy is very good in what is basically a comedic role, though his chemistry with the ill-fated worldly star Scala is not exactly organic.
While entertaining from beginning to end, of the three films in this box set, this is, by default, the least of them. The Blu-ray, however, is outstanding. The shiny dresses of Scala and the films other “fancy ladies” really pop on screen, as the CinemaScope production is presented looking nearly new. Film historian Toby Roan has an audio commentary track, providing plenty of actor resumes as well as various and sundry filmic observations along the way.
No Name on the Bullet
DIRECTED BY JACK ARNOLD/1959
By 1959, Audie Murphy had ascended to the level of name-before-the-title movie star. Case in point, No Name on the Bullet, directed by 1950’s monster movie auteur Jack Arnold (The Creature from the Black Lagoon). Arnold, though, was a contract director for Universal International, and did much more than the sci-fi tinged horror that he’s best known for. Like his semi-Noir of a few years earlier, Man in the Shadow, No Name on the Bullet exists as something of an outlier within its niche.
Murphy played a notorious contract killer named John Gant, an antihero in the truest sense. Gant’s reputation precedes him as he rides into the town of Lordsberg, a movie Western town not unlike any other in that a significant segment of the population is running from something in their own individual past. This becomes apparent as the mere presence of Gant, merely drinking coffee, playing chess, and hanging around, drives certain folks to eventual violent paranoia. Indeed, Gant’s methodology is different than that of most bounty killers. It’s explained several times that though feared for his marksmanship, he’s managed to avoid a murder rap by slowly driving his targets to attacking him, by which point he outdraws them, claiming self-defense.
Murphy plays Gant with the right kind of cold aloofness and movie star swagger that Clint Eastwood would perfect a few years later in A Fistful of Dollars and subsequent seminal spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone. No Name of the Bullet, though, is a Hollywood Western through and through, riding into cinemas (in glorious CinemaScope, no less) in the age of what is now referred to as “the psychological Western”. But Arnold’s film doesn’t quite fit that mold, either.
While Gant is rather explicit in his technique of driving the guilty literally crazy with fear of his well-dressed bad self (seriously, that black and blue ensemble he never changes out of is more righteous than he is), the film itself is far too explicit in this psychological angle to comfortably alongside of its far more internally brooding contemporary Westerns of Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher. No Name on the Bullet never misses a chance to talk about the conundrum at hand (what does Gant want, anyway?), and even go bigger with its ideas than its genre ordinarily allows, ala Arnold’s sci-fi masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man. This may not be a psychological Western, but one of very few outwardly philosophical Westerns. In that, No Name on the Bullet is deserving of reassessment on numerous fronts. (As a Western, as a Jack Arnold film, and as a vehicle for National Hero Audie Murphy wherein he’s unafraid to venture into darker areas as an actor).
Arnold’s careful crafting of Lordsberg as an established community replete with surface-level connections and hidden histories is straight out of the John Ford playbook in all the right and proper ways. Without this expert touch, No Name on the Bullet doesn’t work. The town is positively full of interesting side characters, each of whom get their momentary due. Only within this construct can the true hero of the piece, a humble physician played by character actor Charles Drake (Harvey, The Swimmer) eventually step up to confront the specter at hand.
This Kino Lorber disc has a fantastic commentary by film historians/filmmakers Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani. Right away, Gerani makes a key equation with No Name on the Bullet as a kind of Biblical-styled morality play. He homes in on the way the film dwells on “What’s good? What’s evil? What’s in between? What’s prejudice?” This discussion is great added value in terms of legitimate food for thought. Mitchell and Gerani have a lot of positive things to say about Murphy and the others involved with this film, nailing the point that No Name on the Bullet is its star’s finest Western, and is certainly among the finest of his many films.
Like it’s Western Classics I, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has produced a terrific little Blu-ray box set that no Western fan should skip. The Audie Murphy Collection is every bit as solid as Western Classics I and even more indispensable. Any shortcomings within the individual films are more than leveled out by their strong points. Murphy is, to only slightly varying degrees, a consistently compelling presence in each of them.
In an age as politicized as our current one, it’s refreshing to be able to look back to a moment when a decorated war hero could be adopted by Hollywood, allowing him to then spin an acting career out of whole cloth. Likewise, the conservative general populace of 1950s America had, at least to some degree, arrived at a point when it was not automatically compelled to altogether dismiss Hollywood due to some cockamamie drummed up “culture war”, or what have you. Audie Murphy didn’t need some such “culture war” to define himself- he’d already fought and won in the real thing.
Now, we can honor him and his formidable acting career with the exceptional Audie Murphy Collection.