"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Smoke Signal (Universal, 1955)

A good mid-50s Western with a lot to recommend it


Dana Andrews started in Westerns (Lucky Cisco Kid and Kit Carson in 1940) and he was always solid and reliable, if possibly a tad dull. He always played the same type, but he did it well. He was Donald Martin in The Ox-Bow Incident. Probably his greatest achievement in the Western was as Logan Stuart in the excellent Canyon Passage, (1946) directed by Jacques Tourneur. In Smoke Signal he is tough, taciturn and misunderstood again. He is an army captain accused of treason and desertion.
Universal-International, indeed. Didn't they think 'Universal' includes 'International'?
William Talman is the play-it-by-the-book captain who is charged with delivering Dana to the fort for court martial. But the pesky Utes attack and force the party to ride the rapids of the Colorado in frail small boats. So two classic themes of the Western combine as the characters brave both the wilderness and the Indians.
Personal conflict, Indians, savage nature. It's no picnic.
There’s a girl, of course: Piper Laurie worked for Universal for most of her career. She is the dead major’s daughter, visiting when the redskins attack. Her boyfriend is a rather Stewart Grangerish lieutenant played by Rex Reason. But he is a rotter. Slowly, she loses her Reason and comes round to Dana.
Cowardice? As if.
No great epic, this movie is nevertheless a tidy, well-acted Western. It benefits from some great locations (the Grand Canyon, photographed by Clifford Stine) and very good acting. The characters are strong and develop along the way thanks to quality writing by George W George and George F Slavin (that’s a lot of Georges). And the direction and editing are tight and professional. Jerry Hopper is not among the premier league of Western directors. This was his second (he’d done the weak Pony Express in 1953). He soon moved into TV Western shows (Wagon Train and Have Gun, Will Travel). But he does a good job here.
A lot of the boat scenes are staged, of course, shot in the studio with rushing water in back projection, but that was inevitable. There’s also a fair bit of real location shooting.
Sgt Robert J Wilke & Cpl Gordon Jones
with Arthur Hunnicutt-wannabe Douglas Spencer in coonskin cap
Douglas Spencer is very good as a trapper in coonskin cap and is distinctly Jay C Flippenish, or maybe he modeled himself on Arthur Hunnicutt. Good old Robert J Wilke is not a heavy, for once, but a decent sergeant. Milburn Stone, Doc from Gunsmoke, is also a sergeant.
I like this film. It’s a good mid-50s Western with a lot to recommend it. It’s no big-box-office Oscar winner or anything like that but don’t underrate it.


  1. This is yet another great western featuring Piper Laurie. It’s interesting to look back on her career and see how powerfully she shot out of the career canon and rose to stardom. Can’t wait to meet her at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Md., this September. http://midatlanticnostalgiaconvention.com

  2. Found in a Washington Post article on her memoires, Learning to live out loud, that Piper Laurie is "especially tender is her memory of Dana Andrews, a Hollywood star she worshiped, going through one of his worst alcoholic periods and yet sobering up by entrancing her with hours and hours of Shakespearean verse."
    If Andrews was at his best in the Noirs, he was excellent in most of his westerns, good or bad, bringing with him this noirish je-ne-sais-quoi of the guy with a heavy past.
    I knew Talman as the psycho killer of the first woman-directed noir, The Hitch-Hiker, by Ida Lupino, from which he has kept some traces...
    Pat Hogan's end could have been more enhanced.
    Once on the river, after an excellent first half, the film weakens, we don't really feel the multiple threats, the rapids, the indians, the growing jealousy of the lieutenant, the captain who is far from Bligh and the dull end etc. Not speaking of the usual mistakes about the weaponry mixing winchesters 92 and Springfield carbines, and Colt SA 73 disguised in Remington Army revolvers, something pretty common but I have never discover why...
    Wilke and Spencer roles could have been more developed, but moreover the scenery is very under exploited by the DP, a shame when you know how grandiose it is, especially the Colorado which could be more Cataract Canyon than the Grand itself.
    The second half unfortunately does not meet the expectations that we could hope from the first one.