Like High Noon, where a sheriff is trying to get some backup for a gunfight and finds that nobody in town is willing to help, and like The Naked Spur, where a bunch of men quarrel over how best to capitalize on a man’s punishment, Silver Lode is a convention-defying Western that pitches commentary on Senator Joseph McCarthy persecution of major Hollywood personalities that he considered Communist agents or sympathizers.
It’s the story of four apparent gun-slingers who come to the town of Silver Lode on July 4th (where, as an interesting touch of world-building, the female members of a temperance group are giving out free barley water from a kiosk) and, upon crashing the wedding of John Payne and Elizabeth Scott, reveal themselves to be a US Marshall and three deputies, here to collect on a warrant for the capture (dead or alive) of John Payne. Payne’s a revered guy in the community, he’s lived here for two years, but the Marshall and his warrant say that he’s wanted for murder and, accounting for the vehemence of his captors, Payne’s victim appears to have been the Marshall’s brother.
One of the things that first seemed like a break from convention is that Dan Duryea, who plays one of the scoundrels in Winchester ’73, appears – from what we’re told in the beginning of Silver Lode – to be a good guy. There’s something about his dirty face, following the 200-mile journey, as he stands next to the neat and cleanshaven John Payne that I think is meant to clue the audience in that something’s amiss. One of these guys is dirty and the other’s clean, literally and figuratively. I haven’t seen much else of his work at this point, but there’s something about Duryea’s face, his voice and smile and walk, that scream villainy. He’s a good actor and I’m sure he could play it straight and charming if given the chance but there’s…just something about his face. Ahdunno. Felt weird and uncomfortable to even entertain the idea that he might be a virtuous guy.
And, of course, he’s not. I think another of the visual cues that John Payne is our hero comes in the fact that, even though it’s the old west, his is the only outfit that’s tailored in the fashion of a nice 1950s suit. V-shaped. Broad in the shoulders and nearly as top-heavy as David Byrne’s enormous torso in the 1980s. His pants are slightly higher-waisted than everybody else’s, and that waist looks pretty narrow. His hair is artfully tousled when it isn’t perfectly combed.
He’s too handsome to be a villain.
There’s a great single-shot chase scene in the third act that goes on for probably the better part of a minute that was a delight to see here because, apart from being artful, I suddenly remembered seeing it in a documentary, Martin Scorsese’s Journey Through American Movies, where Scorsese – a great filmmaker sitting and speaking in the capacity of film historian and instructor – dissects that shot and then the scene to follow, where Duryea gets outed as a villain, takes his comeuppance of a bullet through the heart (his own bullet, ricocheted off of a church bell – artful justice for the likes of a mob-forming persecutor), and what it was saying about McCarthy and the Red Scare.
The movie defies convention in that there aren’t clearly-cut good guys and bad guys, first of all (even though the false titles are pretty easy to see through), and it’s pretty confined. There aren’t great horse chases through forests and desert planes. Hardly a shot gets fired until the third act (though we can match that to My Darling Clementine and The Ox-Bow Incident and, on a shelf of lower rank, Rio Grande). It’s more cerebral. It’s trying to say something.
And yet, even though McCarthy’s evil and the danger of that mob mentality was a hot topic that needed to be addressed, it’s already feeling kind of outdated. And I don’t think that’s just because there’ve been a few movies about it even just on the List at this point (imagine how many other movies were coming out at the time as screeds against McCarthy). There’s something about this movie in particular that feels overdrawn. At least in terms of its theme.
The film itself, taken as a simple story without any sort of political message or theme, is a good time. It’s brief, not even 90 minutes, and the action is good, there’s some real tension, and when our hero reaches his lowest point in the middle of the movie, framed for a double homicide while on the run, I was sincerely wondering how he’d get out of it. Also, doubling back on the fact that this is a McCarthyism commentary, there’s a slight chance that the director – if he’s really trying to make a scathing statement – will allow our hero to die, and evil to prevail. That hasn’t happened in any of the other westerns addressing the issue. The heroes there are usually vindicated, the bad guys killed, and the members of the mob driven to repentance. But the heroes of these movies do seem to lose more than our average cowboy hero. They’re subjected to more heartache. So in that respect it was a little more foreboding than, say, Stagecoach or Red River.