“We’re not going anywhere.”
“If you don’t, you’re gonna be a real dead cowboy.”
I’ve got four movies on the backlog, and Silver Lode seems to jump out the most now that I sit down to do some writing. It was a blind pick, mostly just to round out my knowledge of westerns since I’ve barely scratched the surface of the genre. I think this is the first one that really clicked with me right away. I’m a sucker for tight, single-day stories in the tradition of The Tempest or Training Day, which I’ll be writing about soon. There’s this precision to the action of Silver Lode. It’s a smart, simple concept that is executed with suspense. It’s not as bloated as The Searchers, and I think that’s why it resonated with me more.
John Payne stars as Dan Ballard, a well-liked man in the town of Silver Lode. It’s Ballard’s wedding day, when he is interrupted by the fiery lawman Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) who has just rode in from another town. McCarty (McCarthy? Hmm…) claims that Ballard is a killer and needs to be brought in for justice. The rest of the film follows the townspeople as they congregate into a mob, slowly turning against Ballard and becoming sucked into the frenzy of, uh, McCartyism.
I like Silver Lode because it isn’t so ambitious. I think a lot of the “great Westerns” have something grand to say about American life. While the allegory of the movie is obvious, it doesn’t overshadow the story. The primary goal with this one seems to be suspense and entertainment. The story is smartly built around the mob itself, slowly turning from one side or another, leaving you feeling just as uncertain at times. There’s not a lot of soul, but the movie keeps its runtime down by packing it with actions and accusations to the beat of a ticking clock. There’s a sense of finality in every scene where you know this can’t last long before somebody loses their life, and the ending delivers appropriately.
I also really enjoy the psychological case study of the movie. It’s such a dominant, isolated part of the film that you’re reminded of 12 Angry Men (which wouldn’t hit the big screen for several more years). McCarty has little evidence against Ballard, but Ballard doesn’t have any evidence himself. Even though he’s a beloved figure in the town, the people start to turn without cause. There’s something primal about the movie, how this violence emerges in the characters without time for pause.
I also feel compelled to praise the formal decisions of the movie, particularly for standards of a 1950 Western. Countless shots are done through windows or other sorts of framing, acclimating the viewer to feel like a spectator in the town instead of an omniscient presence. There are also several interesting long shots and eccentric camera angles that always keep the film visually engaging.
Silver Lode is a clever gem of American cinema. It’s tight, fast, and heaps of fun. Before I even saw one, I’ve always had this idea of how fun a Western would be. I think this idea of the simple, one-conflict Western has been muddied by the classics (mostly for good reason), but it’s so nice to see the genre used for this kind of effect. The Searchers is a sharp film, but for newcomers to the genre, I’d suggest Silver Lode be your first viewing.
Films Left to Watch: 836