The Duel at Silver Creek Review
At roughly the midway point through his B-movie period (if one truly exists that is, Rough Cut, Dirty Harry et al retain the spirit of the earlier pictures if not the budgets) Don Siegel made The Duel at Silver Creek, his first film in colour and, more importantly, his first Western. It’s true that Siegel never produced a true classic of the genre - though Flaming Star, The Beguiled and The Shootist are all minor gems - but as mentor to Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah (Siegel’s assistant director on a number of occasions during the fifties) his contribution cannot be underestimated.
Yet on the surface The Duel at Silver Creek would appear to be nothing more than another trashy programmer for baby faced war hero-cum-matinee idol Audie Murphy. As is seemingly requisite for lower end Western titles, he comes into town to get revenge and comes away having gained the girl as well. Indeed, anyone who views the accompanying trailer before the main feature would be fully expectant of a film that has very little to do with Don Siegel, something only compounded by Murphy's presence. After all, we are dealing with a director who a certain overt toughness in his casts, whether it be from Robert Mitchum or Ida Lupino, or even the extras of Riot in Cell Block 11 all of whom were played by genuine convicts. When faced with the unexpected, however, Siegel can work wonders, as with Mickey Rooney in Baby Face Nelson, though Hound Dog Man and Fabian prove that he’s no miracle worker. In Murphy’s case the approach is different and instead plays with the star’s popular persona in much the same way as he would a few years later when directing Elvis Presley.
As such we get Audie Murphy playing Audie Murphy (and don’t forget that he found cinematic fame doing just that in To Hell and Back), albeit one who is prone to occasional send-up. There’s immense fun to be had in one particular scene full of frisson that sees Murphy facing up to archetypal tough guy and future Siegel leading man Lee Marvin. Of course, the script dictates that the leading man should come away victor, but it is Marvin who wins the audience’s vote with his louche manner and witty put-downs (“When are ya gonna start shavin’ kid?”).
There’s also something to be said for the manner in which Siegel has dressed Murphy in a fetching black leather jacket and an accompanying, equally spotless pair of silver pistols (seemingly oversized against his tiny frame), not just for the ignominy it affords its lead but also for the fact that it doesn’t seem as alarmingly camp as it would in almost any other picture. Rather the attire barely registers a second look amongst The Duel at Silver Creek’s heightened revision of the Western and its numerous cliches. Much as the director had done in 1949 with The Big Steal, his overblown addition to the ranks of film noirs, the film becomes a near self-parodic piece of genre filmmaking (though note that this is very much not a comedy Western) inhabiting an alternative existence where every cliche is not only true but also the norm; references to Boot Hill abound as do a roster of ridiculous character names: leads Murphy and Stephen McNally are the Silver Kid and Sheriff Lightning, respectively, plus there’s room for a Dan Musick, a Miss Opal “Brown Eyes” Lacey and, best of all, a Johnny Sombrero. Were this not a Western, then surely it would be a rock ‘n’ roll musical or perhaps a pre-cursor to the genre bending of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. All the more astonishing is the fact that, The Big Steal aside, Siegel’s non-Western B-movies such as Crime in the Streets and Private Hell 36, or even the straight-forward thrillers with which he concluded his career (The Black Windmill, Telefon), would suggest that when he did eventually turn his hand to the genre the results would be of a similar nature to the pared-down, adult collaborations of Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher. (Interestingly, when Siegel did get around to working the latter, the result was Two Mules for Sister Sara, one of the least likely entries in either’s filmography.)
It is tempting in such a situation to denigrate the screenwriters and give sole credit to the director for producing a work that transcends its trashy origins. Yet whilst there are obvious flaws inherent in the script - in particular, McNally’s voice-over which is rendered lazy and pointless by the fact that he isn’t present for a number of the film’s key events - writers Gerald Drayson Adams and Joseph Hoffman would appear to be very much in on the game. The opening scenes, for example, effectively reveal every twist allowing the viewer to simply sit back and enjoy the subversion, but more importantly it is the crackle of their dialogue which reveals their true talents. The mode is very much that of the classic screwball comedy albeit the central couple swapping the barbed exchanges and having the love-hate falling outs are Murphy and McNally. Interestingly, Murphy ends up with the girl at the end, only she’s been eyeing McNally for most of the picture, forming an intriguing triangle. It’s an aspect that can only be emphasised by McNally’s relationship with Faith Domergue - an empty romance as she’s revealed as one of the key villains within the opening ten minutes.
With so many unexpected pleasures occupying the viewer’s attentions, it is somewhat disappointing when The Duel at Silver Creek feels the urge to return to more familiar territory. At heart the film is still a low-budget genre piece and as such has to conclude in a typical Western fashion. And fine though the final ten minutes are - Siegel’s far too good a director for them to be otherwise - it still feels a shame that after an hour of joyful quirkiness the concluding moments should be played so straight.
The technicolor may be fading slightly, but otherwise Universal’s disc of The Duel at Silver Creek looks especially fine. The picture rarely presents any overt signs of damage and retains the original Academy ratio. The sound is, perhaps, even better, being impressively sharp given its age, and again the presentation preserves its original state (in this case mono, distributed over the front two speakers). Sadly, the extras do provide a disappointment. The only feature, the original theatrical trailer, is mere filler, a typical genre example that doesn’t even begin to hint towards the pleasures of the film it is meant to be promoting. If the film were a mere Audie Murphy programmer then a sole trailer would be expected, but as this is a Siegel picture - and therefore most likely to be purchased by a Siegel fan - isn’t it about time we were treated to one of his films with a commentary, no matter who was willing to record it?