Sunday, July 14, 2013

Exhuming McCarthy

Film: Silver Lode
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I thought I was done with Westerns until I discovered that Silver Lode was still on the list. As far as I know, this is the final Western film that I’m told I have to watch before I expire, and I think that’s probably a good thing. I don’t dislike Westerns, but I do get tired of them. Certainly there are some in the genre that are a little different or that go to interesting places, or that are Western only in setting, but this is a genre that gets stuck in the same loop more than most others.

That’s very much the case with Silver Lode, a film that was done a lot better a few years earlier when it was called High Noon. It’s not a direct rip-off, but there are enough similarities here that I can’t imagine that director Allan Dwan wasn’t influenced in many ways by the superior film. Only the details are different. In the first film, a highly-respected member of the town is called out on the day of his wedding by an old enemy and the townspeople refuse to help him. In Silver Lode, a highly-respected member of the town is arrested on his wedding day on a fake charge by an old enemy and the townspeople slowly turn against their former friend.

Of course, there’s more going on here, and that’s what makes this film somewhat more interesting than it would otherwise be. Silver Lode is very thinly-veiled allegory. This isn’t so much a Western as it is the Red Scare and HUAC and Sen. McCarthy. In fact, one might suggest that this film is that story simply dressed up in spurs. While the parallels to High Noon are evident, it would seem that the basic story works to call into question the detailed workings of the misguided anti-communist legislators from the 1950s.

Dan Ballard (John Payne) is marrying his sweetheart Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) on the Fourth of July in the town of Silver Lode. Just as the wedding is about to take place, a group of four men claiming to be federal marshals ride into town looking for Ballard on a murder and thieving charge. This group is led by Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea, and notice the similarity in last name to Tail Gunner Joe), who claims that Ballard shot his brother in the back, and over a card game.

Slowly, the townspeople who begin completely on the side of Ballard, a prominent citizen of the town, begin to shift. Evidence, almost all of it faked and suggested without any proof pushes the townspeople further and further away from Ballard’s side, particularly those who assume that the accusation equates with guilt. McCarty puts himself in position to accuse Ballard of additional crimes of which he is the only witness. For instance, one of McCarty’s men decides to help out Ballard—McCarty shoots his former friend, then claims Ballard was responsible, and with no witnesses, he is immediately believed.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this film is going, nor to foresee where it will go. It’s also not difficult to see that Dwan’s feelings are entirely on the side of Dan Ballard rather than the slowly growing angry mob of townspeople. As things get worse and worse for Ballard, the idea that it will all end in a final gunfight (Western, after all) followed by a confrontation that includes Ballard’s exoneration become more and more obvious.

But you know what? That’s okay. Dwan doesn’t do a very good job of hiding his allegory here, but he probably didn’t really want to. The intent was to slap the McCarthy hearings in the face of anyone who watched the film, and that’s precisely what he does, making his meaning so evident that there is no way it could possibly be misunderstood. Okay, so it’s a little bit on the nose. And? It still manages to work.

This is not the film High Noon was by any stretch of the imagination. It’s far too simple and lacks anything like nuance, applying its lessons instead with a crowbar. And yet it still manages to tell the story it wants pretty effectively. There’s a genuineness to the psychology of the townspeople, who are instantly cowed by the sight of a warrant and a marshal’s badge. And there are moments of subtlety here, too. It’s no mistake that Fred McCarty’s authority is assumed and doesn’t really exist.

What Silver Lode may lack in finesse it makes up for with guts. I can imagine members of HUAC thinking perhaps Allan Dwan or screenwriter Karen DeWolf might be ripe for sitting in the hot seat based on this film. If nothing else, Silver Lode is worth seeing because watching someone extend a middle finger for 77 minutes at a bully is a beautiful thing to see.

Why to watch Silver Lode: It’s a surprisingly tight little thriller.
Why not to watch: It was better when it was called High Noon.


  1. A spot on review. It's definitely both influenced by High Noon and is taking on the McCarthy hearings head on. I agree it's not as good as High Noon, but still worth seeing.

    One note: if your defintion of "western" is "gunslinger in the old west" then you are done with them. Depending on how broad your definition is, there may be a couple more coming your way.

    1. For purposes of this blog, Western is "gunslinger in the old West" for all intents and purposes.

      I liked this one more than I thought I would--I expected it to be a throwaway, but it was really pretty decent, a lot because of the allegory.

  2. Yes, this is not even close to High Noon, but it is quite effective at what it does and I was not suffering watching this one. The amazing thing was they got away with it.

    1. I think there's a level of plausible deniability here. After all, the author of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" went on record as saying that the story wasn't either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyism. It was just a story.

  3. I loved Silver Lode! Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott are both great. Sure, it's almost fatally dumb at a couple of points (the scene in the barn where it looks like John Payne went on a murder rampage is pretty silly) but most of the way it's action-packed and doesn't strain credibility too much more than your average Western.

    The similarities to High Noon are very superficial. I wouldn't have even noticed it at all if it wasn't mentioned in this post. I think Silver Lode has as much in common with something like The Ox-Bow Incident as it does with High Noon.

    1. Allegorically, I think it's riding the same train as High Noon, just a lot more blatantly.

      Dan Duryea is terribly underrated as a heavy. I wish he was better known, because he was born for roles like this one.