“Smoky Canyon”

August 9, 2008

It’s 1952 and only 5 more films to go for the Durango Kid and for Charles Starrett (both retired after this year.)

Maybe the producers were trying to pass the torch on to Jack (formerly “Jock”) Mahoney. This is his film. He gets the girl, the majority of screen time, and even beats Charley in a fight.

Charley is looking old.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Jack Mahoney plays Jack Mahoney. It must have been strange for Charley. He’s the only one of the three leads whose character name is not his real name. Smiley is the third, of course.

It’s a range war between the Cattlemen and the Sheepmen (again). Jack is on the side of the Sheepmen. He’s also got a price on his head — we learn (in a flashback actually shot for this film, not recycled from another) that he was framed for killing the head of the Cattlemen.

Early on, he saves a Sheepherder from a lynching with a little help from the Kid. He tells his friend, “It’s not all bad news. Durango showed up!” The friend exclaims, “Durango! That’s the best news I’ve heard in months. I’ll spread the news about Durango around the county.”

Steve Brent is a gun for hire, I guess. He turns down most of the jobs he’s offered in Timber Rock. Usually in these pictures, we follow Steve into town and through the whole film, generally driving the plot. Here, he flits around, popping up now and then. I’m not sure who he’s supposed to be, besides a meddler and rumor monger.

Finally, about 2/3rds of the way through, he’s given something to do — he’s hired to kill Durango. In a rare peek into the cosmology of Durango/Steve, he reveals that “I can promise you this, if Durango and I ever meet face to face, only one of us will walk away.” I imagine he’s poorly rephrasing something that his State-appointed shrink told him, something down the lines of “if you can confront your demons, you won’t need to hide behind the Durango personality anymore.” But then, I’m just guessing.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In these later DK films, they mess with the formula that is the Smiley character. For one thing, he dresses differently — gone is the battered old black hat and plaid shirt and suspenders. Here’s he’s dressed as a posh buggy driver, in a long coat and fancy hat.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Also, for the second time that I’ve witnessed, he’s a bad ass. In one scene, he’s tied to a chair and being interrogated. He bursts the restraints, beats a gun draw with a knife throw, then beats a guy half to death. Another guess from me: at contract renewal time, he didn’t get a salary increase, and they tossed him a bone with more “script involvement.” Again, just guessing.

There’s a bizarre dream sequence where Smiley, wearing a nightcap and brandishing a butcher knife, chases talking sheep who keep calling his name, “Smiley Smiley SMILEY!” Sounds like one of my nightmares.

Also trying something new is director Fred Sears. There’s all these fancy close-ups and moving camera shots in the fight scenes. What? Where are the tried and true long shots?

There’s a whole subplot involving a “weak” woman trying to be strong “like a man.” I will ignore it because it’s demeaning (she’s named Roberta and insists on being called “Rob”) and below even the hackneyed moral code of these films.

I’ll also ignore the repeated killing of sheep and cattle by burning them alive. Though mercifully killed off-screen, its’ still too brutal for me, let alone the kids in the audience.

Most interesting thing about this film, besides some great riding and stunt work by Jack Mahoney, is that this is one of the rare Durango Kid films where one could conceivably not know that Steve is the Durango Kid. By this I mean that, besides the obvious fact that they look alike, we never see Steve turn into the Durango Kid, he never talks about becoming Durango, and, as Durango, he even fails to warn his friends that Steve is not their enemy (odd decision that last, it leads to a lot of trouble.)

In the end, Jack is the new Sheriff and swears to track down and kill Steve. Only then does Durango do something about it. He takes the gal aside, behind a wagon and out of sight of the others, and takes off his mask. Mind you, we don’t get to see that he’s Steve, but the implication is that the girl does.

It’s weird when they do this. I mean, what half-wit wouldn’t know that Steve was Durango. Especially this late in the series. One of the many decisions I don’t understand that were made regarding these films.

No musical act! Not even that little harmonica playing guy that often backs Smiley up in these, the last of the Durango Kid films.