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Salty owes money to Doc Baxter; he and his pal Smitty have one month to pay up. They get a race horse and a disbarred jockey, Johnny Cates, who must fake his identity to race. Johnny and Salty both fall in love with Barbara Brooks and, to get even, Johnny considers throwing the horserace. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
SALTY O'ROURKE is one of those fine, unpretentious, smoothly paced films with accent on entertainment and slick production values that one has come to expect from director Raoul Walsh. Here we have a racetrack tale replete with Runyonesque lowlife characters who frequent the territory: gamblers, bookies, disgraced jockeys, and long shot thoroughbreds.
Starring Alan Ladd in one of his best performances (of which there were many), the story concerns a gambler, Salty O'Rourke (Ladd), who suddenly discovers that he has inherited a $20,000 debt left unpaid by his murdered partner and is given one month to repay it or pay with his life. He schemes to enter a fast, but relatively unknown, racehorse in the Darlington Handicap where he is sure to clean up and fulfill the odious obligation. To do this, he must enlist the services of the talented but obnoxious Johnny Cates (Stanley Clements), a jockey who has been barred from riding on American tracks but is the only one able to handle the temperamental animal. Further complications arise when the jockey, forced to go back to school as a condition of his reinstatement, manages to get himself expelled on the first day ("I got all the education I need and I ain't gonna overdo it," he sneers.). It is left to Salty to meet with the teacher, Barbara Brooks (Gail Russell), and trowel on the charm to induce her to allow Cates back into the classroom. Cates now falls for Barbara in a big way, but becomes extremely jealous when he learns that the she is attracted to Salty who, up to this point, has been biding his time merely as a conciliator between teacher and student. As the big day approaches and the jockey's animosity towards his employer grows, the outcome of the race is cast into doubt.
Ladd and Clements are excellent in their scenes together. Clements, in an early Cagney-styled performance, deliberately defies Psychology's posit that "There is no such thing as a bad boy." He lies, he steals, he breaks training, and he makes empty promises only to get Ladd off his back. Ladd, in turn, counters in ways that would embarrass Father Flannigan. The byplay of these two alone is worth the price of admission.
Ladd fans should love this movie. He can be dispassionate and cunning when dealing with his antagonists, yet breezy and engaging in the presence of Russell and her fluttery mother (Spring Byington). For my money, Gail Russell (with the possible exception of Lizabeth Scott) was Alan Ladd's best screen partner. Her unabashed charm and wide-eyed innocence perfectly augmented his hard edge and brought out another dimension in his character: a gentleness and civility that was seldom explored in the many tough-as-nails parts he played in the '40s. She humanized him.
Not that he got too soft. In the scene where he settles the debt with Doc Baxter (Bruce Cabot), you can just feel the temperature drop in the room even as they speak. This is the cold killer at his best.
SALTY O'ROURKE is a "must see" for Ladd fans and a "must own" for collectors of Alan Ladd movies.
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