Sunday, September 20, 2020

"The Duel at Silver Creek" (1952)

After a three-year absence from the big screen following The Big Steal (1949), Don Siegel returned with his first-ever western, The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), now available in a beautiful Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. It is undeniably a Siegel film, with its themes of systemic violence and the thin-lines between organized crime and law-and-order, and with every frame gleaming with his characteristic hardboiled edge and tough-talking sensibility. The script by Gerald Drayson Adams—whose credits include such crime flicks as Dead Reckoning (1947), The Big Steal, Armored Car Robbery (1950), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951)—and Joseph Hoffmana veteran screenwriter from the 1930s—has such a gritty, urban rhythm that, if you close your eyes, you'd think it was a contemporary crime story set in Chicago, New York, or some other big city. The Duel at Silver Creek borrows many story elements from noir, such as the ominous voice-over and the lawman who plays patsy to a ruthless femme fatale. Even Audie Murphy's costume is tinged with noir—even though he's the good guy, he dons a black stetson and back leather jacket, as though to remind of the potential for violene lurking just beneath the surface. As the marshal remarks, “He didn’t have the face of a killer, but he had the cold steel look of one.”

The film begins with a vicious gang of claim jumpers forcing men to sign over their deeds before killing them. While in pursuit, Marshal Lightning Tyrone (Stephen McNally) is injured, crippling his trigger finger. In need of a fast gun for a deputy, he hired the Silver Kid (Audie Murphy), whose father was murdered by the claim jumpers. Meanwhile, two newcomers are stirring up the town: Rod Lacey (Gerald Mohr) has started a claims office, while his sister, Opal (Faith Domergue), has been stealing the marshal's affections away from Dusty Fargo (Susan Cabot). Little does the marshal realize that the Opals are behind the killings and have their own plan for the lawman.

The Duel at Silver Creek has one of the most thoroughly hard-boiled attitudes of any western, unsentimental and unsparing. Murphy is stellar and benefits from Siegel's no-nonsense direction (though Siegel does allow him the occasional moment of humor, such as when Dusty orders him to help with dishes, and he ignorantly and clumsily puts on an apron incorrectly). In his first credited film role, Lee Marvin nearly steals the show as a local hard case who is first seen as losing in poker to the Silver Kid. Domergue is perfect as the merciless and duplicitous Opal, and Cabot delivers a better performance than was written in the script, bringing a lot of earthiness and warmth to her role.

Among the most interesting aspects to the script are the ways in which it examines a community structured around systemic violence in which the law looks a lot like the the outlaws, a theme crystallized by Murphy's black hat and jacket, a costume stereotypically worn by the villains. The marshal also makes it clear that he rules by threat of his fast hand and quick trigger finger. Early in the film, he throws a newcomer through a storefront window just as a reminder that he's in charge. After his trigger finger is injured and he can no longer shoot, he hides this from the town in order to maintain his authority—as though without its threat law could not be maintained. 

As usual with Universal's westerns, it's a solidly-entertaining 77 minutes. How it goes to be 77 minutes, however, is almost more interesting than the movie itself.

The film began with a bit of a con. As the director reveals in his memoir, A Siegel Film (1993), "I received a call form a well-known agent, Phil Gersh. He wasn't to know if I would sign up with him if he got me an immediate picture to direct at Universal." Siegel agreed, unaware that the studio had demanded that the agent get Siegel—and not the other way around.

What Siegel walked into was a half-baked script with goofy names and not much of a plot.

"Duel at Silver Creek was interesting. There was no duel and no creek. Also, the name of the characters in the picture were unbelievably amusing. . . . I wanted to rush next door and compliment Hoffman on his imagination, creativity and originality. There was no doubt in my mind that those names were tongue-in-cheek. I hoped the whole script would be written in the same style. Outside the names of the characters, however, the story was well trodden. . . . The story was quite routine and needed work."
The producer, Leonard Goldstein, however, wasn't as keen on fixing up the script. Alan Lovell quotes Siegel describing the conflict in his 1975 BFI book, Don Siegel:

"I remember going to see Goldstein who was the producer to ask permission to finish the script so that at least I would know who gets the girl. I didn't think that was too awful a request for a director to make. He said: 'Kid, how many pictures have I made this year?' It was then November—I said: 'Gosh, I don't know I believe you've made an awful lot.' He said: 'I've made 19 and I didn't make them by pushing them back two weeks.' So I went into the picture not knowing whether Steve McNally or Audie Murphy got the girl. I couldn't take the picture seriously.

"The script was short. To make it look longer we left a lot of space between each shot description in the final big gun battle. It gave us a good page count, and the studio told us to go ahead and start shooting. I started to get compliments on the dailies from the executives and told them I was afraid we might be running short, but they said: 'Keep up the same pace, don't change anything.' I wound up with a 54-minute movie and had to dream up a prologue about Audie Murphy and his father to expand it to 77 minutes."
Siegel and new writer Joseph Hoffman did what they could with the time allotted, but they were limited in their capacity. Ultimately, "there wasn't much he [Siegel] could do with the script, which he despised," describes Don Graham in No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy (1989).

Siegel's memoir describes the rewrites: "We churned out the pages for several days as fast as we could. I thought Joe was doing as good a job as possible, considering the material."

Then came an issue with Domergue, who reportedly wouldn't shoot the new script. After meeting with the actress, according to A Siegel Film, the director told her, "The reason Mr Goldstein was told by your agent that Adams's script was the one you wanted to do (looking her straight in the eye) was that you had more words to speak in that script. . . . But the dialogue is not as good as Hoffman's. Supposing I promised you that you would have as much to say in the second script as in the first. Which script would you prefer?" Domergue agreed to the second script if her lines increased.

That still left the issue of a script that Siegel knew wasn't feature length. When he heard that studio head William Goetz was watching the dailies from the production, Siegel called him up. To his surprise, Goetz loved what he was seeing. Siegel mentioned the issue of the script being too short but, as explained in A Siegel Film, Goetz told him, "When your film looks great, full of action and constant pace, don't change a thing. Continue to keep the picture moving." So, Siegel did as he was told, completing the script as written—which turned out to be fifty-four minutes long. When producer Goldstein complained, Siegel had Goetz as his defense—and Goldstein wasn't about to contradict his boss.

So, the only option left was to write some more pages to film. Siegel recalls in his memoir, "[Joe] wrote a surprisingly good prologue and epilogue. We fattened the picture from fifty-four minutes to seventy-seven minutes. We weren't a second too short. I became known at Universal as the fifty-four-minute director."

To Siegel's great credit, the movie manages to hold together. The individual scenes are so well directed, and so swiftly paced, that he hide a lot of the script's flaws, such as plot holes, under-written characters, and Murphy's absence from the picture for twenty minutes after the opening scene. Even though his name is above the title, the story is more about the Marshal than the Silver Kid. In the end, though, Murphy was cast in the right (and more interesting) role—his stoic, hardboiled persona works much better for the simmering violence of the Silver Kid than it would have for the lawman duped by lust.

When it was first released, the director was surprised by the good reviews. As he muses in A Siegel Film, "When reviews are good, I believe in them. If I know they are bad, I don't bother to read them."

The Blu-ray is available from Kino Lorber Studio Classics as part of their Audie Murphy Collection alongside Ride a Crooked Trail and No Name on the Bullet. For fans of classic westerns, this box set is highly recommended. There's lots of re-watchability with these films, so you'll want the upgraded image quality if you had these on DVD.

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