Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: The Duel at Silver Creek

I've been a fan of Audie Murphy's Westerns ever since I saw SIX BLACK HORSES at the Eagle Drive-in Theater when I was a little kid, but THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK is one that I'd never watched until now. Released in 1952, it's a fairly early entry in Murphy's career, and it's notable as well for being one of the first handful of films directed by Don Siegel and for including a small supporting turn by a young Lee Marvin.

THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK crams a lot of plot into a short 77-minute running time. A group of claim-jumpers led by the always dependably evil Gerald Mohr is causing trouble around Silver City. The local lawman, Marshal "Lightnin'" Tyrone (so called because he's fast with a gun) is determined to hunt them down. At the same time he's battling nerve damage from a bullet wound that makes it impossible for him to pull the trigger of a gun, even though he's as fast on the draw as ever. He's also trying to solve the murder of his elderly mentor, who was shot in the back one rainy night. A beautiful woman and her somewhat shady brother show up in town. The even more beautiful tomboy daughter of the stable owner is in love with Marshal Tyrone, although he doesn't have a clue about that. A sinister gunman known as Johnny Sombrero (great name!) is lurking around. Then another gunfighter, The Silver Kid, shows up in town on a mission of vengeance, and of course all these elements come together. As is common in Western movies from this era, the pace is a little deliberate for most of the way, although Siegel does spice things up with an occasional action scene, before letting things explode into a spectacular battle at the end featuring some good stunt work.

Murphy, who plays The Silver Kid, was never a great actor, but he sure had screen presence. Dressed all in black, he's menacing but affable and dominates most of the scenes he's in just by being there. Stephen McNally, never one of my favorites, plays Marshal Tyrone and is okay in the part, except for the fact that his character is so blasted stupid it's hard to like him very much. That's not really McNally's fault. Faith Domergue is the femme fatale Marshal Tyrone falls for, and it's so obvious she's working with the bad guys that she might as well be wearing a sign, but Tyrone never seems to notice. (That's not a spoiler, by the way; the viewer is in on that plot twist all along, from the moment when Domergue's character viciously murders a wounded witness while nobody is looking.) Susan Cabot is much more appealing as the tomboy named Dusty, and Lee Marvin steals the few scenes he's in as a minor baddie.

The photography is excellent and looks great on the DVD I watched. Not surprisingly, Siegel's staging of the action scenes is very effective.  THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK isn't a great Western. The script is a little too muddled for that, and Marshal Tyrone, who's really the lead despite Murphy's top billing as The Silver Kid, isn't likable enough. But it's a solid piece of entertainment and a very worthwhile way to spend a little more than an hour. I sort of wish Murphy had returned as The Silver Kid in more movies. I'm sure I would have enjoyed them.


pattinase (abbott) said...

My Mom was a great fan of Audie Murphy. I guess because he served in the war. Although she was a great fan of any cowboy movie or TV show. I miss calling her on Saturday morning and hearing what she was watching that day.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I happened to watch this over the Christmas hols with my Dad. One of the things that struck us was the rather odd inclusion of the Silver Kid's backstory in the prologue since it robs his character of any mystery when he emerges in his pistolero outfit - I mean we probably were not meant to find the persona all that equivocal but perhaps they could have introduced that part of the story as a flashback.

The problem is, as you say, that he isn't the real protagonist but I suppose they wanted to get Murphy on screen earlier.

Great fun for kids in us all.