There seems to be an entire subset of movies from the fifties that refers to the McCarthy purges. “Silver Lode” is yet another one of those. I understand that this was a particularly traumatic period in Hollywood with everybody looking over their shoulder in case somebody would point a finger at them for being a dirty commie and get blacklisted and it is only natural that this should spill over into a number of the productions. Some of these got the reference quite good (Johnny Guitar, High Noon), while others seem to confuse the issue (On the Waterfront, despite being an excellent movie). Silver Lode falls into this last category. What the experience definitely gave Hollywood was an acute insight into mob mentality and how you may suddenly find yourself very much alone when the tide turns against you.
In “Silver Lode” this mob mentality image is set in the old West, which is a clever choice. Partly because there is a history of vigilance in those parts and partly because it provides a believable microcosm that the viewer would find very familiar. The best movie on mob-madness I still consider to be “The Ox-bow Incident”, but where that movie in some parts lost its pace there is no such deficiency in “Silver Lode”. This is intended to be an action drama with a dash of suspense and it works very well at that, though at the price of being rather heavy handed in hammering home the points.
“Silver Lode” is a color movie from the little studio “Republic” who specialized in Westerns. The List has already included quite a few of their movies, so they had a pretty good touch on the genre. In this case we find a wedding on a 4th of July holiday invaded by a US Marshall (Dan Duryea) when he arrests the groom (John Payne) for murder and theft. The groom, Dan Ballard, has lived in Silver Lode for two years and is very well liked and respected so when the Marshal throws these accusations at him they are throwing up a wall around him.
Slowly however Marshall Fred McCarty manages to convince the villagers that Ballard is indeed a murderer and when the suspicion takes hold it spreads like a bush fire. In no time the entire town is ready to gun down Dan Ballard.
Sometimes a director likes to keep us uncertain if the accused is indeed guilty and I like it like that. Not this movie however. The uncertainty last only for a few minutes before we are convinced of Ballard’s innocence and that McCarty is not person he claims to be so no need for a spoiler tag here. It is very clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. What is a lot more interesting is how the surroundings react. In a very real sense they are actually the true bad guys.
The strength of this movie is in how effectively it gives us a character who is striving to prove his innocence, but in the eyes of his surroundings just looks more and more guilty. There is a direct line from this movie to “The Fugitive” and “The Hunt” in this respect, with the addition that “The Hunt” also has the mob element (I actually consider “The Hunt” a remake of “Silver Lode”). Ballard is thwarted every step of the way by McCarty, who builds up a progressively stronger case against him with a particularly low points when the town Sheriff is killed, apparently by Ballard.
As I mentioned the pace is good and the story effective so it is one of those movies where time just flies by and that is a quality all on its own.
Where the movie is less successful is in the ham fisted way the points are presented. McCarty is so repulsive a character that it ought to make somebody think twice about his identity and his charges. When the townsfolk learn that he has hunted Ballard for two years and that the murder victim was McCarty’s brother they must have realized that there was a personal element to this “arrest” that was decidedly unhealthy. In short, the townsfolk react just a trifle too stupidly to be completely believable. At the same time Ballard acts all the way through as the perfect gentleman, so innocent and clean that he makes a boy scout look like a ghetto gangster. You would think a guy in his shoes would lose it, but Ballard keeps cool. Even cornered up in the church tower you hardly sense any desperation. Dr. Kimble in “The Fugitive” was a master in keeping cool, but he always had a plan and thought two steps ahead. Ballard’s “plan” hinges on getting a message through on the wire to confirm that McCarty is no Marshall and meanwhile stay alive. Considering that the telegraph operator has no intention of wasting his time with such a message this is not really much of a plan and I think he ought to be quite desperate.
The references to the purge are also so in your face that you have to be an idiot to miss it. McCarty is of course Senator McCarthy, duh, and the personal vendetta disguised as official business is pretty clear as well. This is decidedly un-elegant.
Despite all these clear references I think the movie confuses the point a bit. “Silver Lode” makes it a question between good and bad with the trick being to recognize which is which. The problem with the McCarthy purges was the process rather than the issue. Whether you were protecting your country or believing in reform was not a case of black and white, but the public defamation was and the policing of opinions. In “Silver Lode” one side is ultimately right and the other is ultimately wrong, but, yeah, the control of mob sentiment is right so it gets points for that.
As pure entertainment this movie is really alright and something I would not mind seeing again. I am just afraid that the ham-fistedness would get to annoy me so much that it would spoil the fun. Still Duryea makes a great villain and that is good enough for me.