Audie Murphy knew what his fans wanted. Action movies and westerns, rinse, lather and repeat. Why fix something that isn't broken? So for the most part, Murphy's career doesn't offer more than a classic or two, but there is something familiar, comfortable and most importantly, enjoyable, about his films. Take 1954's Ride Clear of Diablo, a solid western that is content to be just that and little else.
A railroad surveyor, Clay O'Mara (Murphy) has received word that his father and son have been brutally gunned down by cattle rustlers stealing the family's herd. He heads home in hopes of tracking down the rustlers/killers but wants to do so legally. Clay approaches the Santiago sheriff, Kenyon (Paul Birch), about taking a job as a deputy so his efforts will be on the up and up, very legal. The sheriff approves, telling Clay that a good place to start in hunting down the rustlers is to go after infamous gunfighter and wanted killer Whitey Kincade (Dan Duryea). Bringing in the bandit is one thing, but Clay may have bit off more than he could chew. In his efforts, the new deputy finds out that Sheriff Kenyon and a lawyer in town, Meredith (William Pullen), may know far more than they're letting on.
This 1954 western was recently on Encore Westerns -- they seem to have a lot of B-westerns available on their programming -- and as a fan of Audie Murphy, I wanted to give it a try. It's received a solid rating at IMDB (6.8 as I write this review), but I didn't come away hugely impressed. I enjoyed it, liked it but at the same time didn't love it. 'Diablo' doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack in terms of B-westerns, but director Jesse Hibbs does a good, workmanlike job behind the camera. Pretty forgettable, but decent enough in the moment.
The biggest thing to take away from 'Diablo' is the early quasi-buddy pairing of Murphy and Duryea. It's an interesting Odd Couple pairing with Murphy's resolute, revenge-seeking lawman and Duryea's ruthless but intelligent hired gun teaming up. It isn't a friendship -- far from it -- but there's at least a mutual respect between the two men who are very different but hold more similarities than they might care to admit. Duryea's Kincade has a sick, morbid curiosity, always putting Clay into compromising situations to see how he'll handle it. Somewhere along the way, maybe they do become odd friends. I liked the dynamic between the duo a lot, their dialogue scenes together in cantinas and saloons, even just on the trail are Westerns 101, but they work.
In a movie that runs about 80 minutes, too much time is spent on a possible love interest for Clay in Susan Cabot's Laurie, the sheriff's well-meaning niece. She's engaged to the sinister, conniving Meredith (meh in the villain department), but wouldn't you know it? Laurie might just like Clay too. A far more interesting female part goes to Abbe Lane as Kate, a dance hall girl looking out for herself above all else. As for the villains beyond Kenyon and Meredith, Russell Johnson (Yes, Professor from Gilligan's Island, and yes, it's unsettling) is a greedy hired gun while Jack Elam plays Tim Lowerie, a rustler who takes an instant dislike to Clay upon arrival. Denver Pyle is solid in a smaller supporting part as Reverend Moorehead, his conversations with Clay about the right and wrong of the brutality of the west a highlight.
Mostly though, whenever Murphy and Duryea aren't together, the story in 'Diablo' runs a little slow. It picks up the pacing some in the finale as the duo team up to bring the rustling killers to justice including a surprisingly vicious final shootout. The script getting there is full of holes. How can Clay not see that Sheriff Kenyon is basically sending him on suicide missions every other day? Is he that stupid? A decent western, but nothing more.
Ride Clear of Diablo (1954): ** 1/2 /****