“It looks like Ballard’s past has come to town!”
A brood of leery guns lumbers into the town of Silver Lode. We have an instant clash of temperaments. Because this outside force is menacing and foreboding. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are getting everything together for their Fourth of July bash. They’re downright neighborly. They don’t hardly think twice when it comes to sharing the whereabouts of one of their locals: Dan Ballard (John Payne).
Though that’s not quite right because Ballard is a relatively recent addition to the community having arrived only two years prior and settled down as a pillar of Silver Lode’s community — well-liked by just about everyone. In fact, when the purported U.S. Marshall Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) starts asking for him, Dan is in the middle of his marriage ceremony to Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) who comes from a highly respected family.
There’s no doubting the gunfighters are out for blood though. Although they are stopped in their stride by the even-keeled, rational-minded sheriff (Emile Meyer), they nevertheless have enough pull to burst into the matrimonial bubble.
Because, of course, Ballard knows this man. He killed his brother in California. It was a fair fight; the other man drew first, but McCarty calls it murder. He’s out for his brand of justice, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The reverend fires right back with the prerogative to “turn the other cheek.”
The thugs crash the ceremony regardless, the biggest wrinkle is the fact they represent law & order as marshals with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. Though Dan greatly suspects the validity of the man who knew only as a cattle rustler, he willfully gives himself up. After all, the town is still standing by him. However, that can change.
They begin a grim procession, sullying the cheery proceedings around town, as they make their way to the Judge’s quarters. Dan keeps his buddies at bay even as he voluntarily follows McCarty. The sheriff is put in an uncomfortable position and yet he agrees to form a posse to join the contingent to make sure Dan remains safe in protected custody.
However, things heat up as the decks stack against him. The telegraph lines are conveniently down so there’s no way to verify the marshal’s credentials. There’s also a dichotomy between the respectable, God-fearing hypocrites and other folks, which hasn’t dissipated since the dawning of time.
The saloon matron, Dolly (Dolores Moran), is ever ready to help Ballard — because they had a history once. He doesn’t know who else he can trust. Already the resident Pharisees, with their up-turned noses, are clamoring for Ballard’s removal due to his pedigree as a hardened criminal. They don’t trust him. Dolly’s best retort is aimed at the Reverend, “I think some of your flock needs delousing.”
So she runs interference as Ballard tries to seek a meeting with one of McCarty’s brood. Harry Carey Jr., ever the brittle westerner looks to play the stooge in return for $5,000 and protection. He’s willing to rat, of course. There is a momentary glimmer of light that McCarty promptly snuffs out.
A barn standoff could conceivably tie up the film in a minute if the sheriff wasn’t conveniently gunned down and the stoolie Johnson follows suit. It seems like the whole town is present, witnessing the guns in Ballard’s hands, again, the obvious criminal. Though winged, McCarty lives to fight another day — maintaining his lie in the process — all but damning Ballard for good.
Twists of wicked fate just keep on coming and McCarty now can wield the townsfolk against their former neighbor, turning them against him outright. It gets so bad he feels no recourse but take on the mantle of the hunted fugitive in order to survive and vindicate himself. Circumstances certainly look dire.
One of John Alton’s best setups is probably when Ballard dashes across town crouching and then sprinting a bit further to reach his destination — pursuers scurrying after him as he returns fire — executed in one uninterrupted dolly shot sweeping left to right across the compound.
We also have the ticking clocks of High Noon, metaphorically speaking. If we mention that film, there is no way we cannot mention HUAC and The Hollywood Blacklist. Because the parallels in the allegory are too apparent. We have good men who are turned upon and likened to criminals for past sins or beliefs that diverge from the pack.
It gets ugly when mob-like hysteria takes over, and there is no wisdom to guide the ensuing actions. Everything is dictated by fear and hate. Mob violence is the death of any town as McCarty (Joseph McCarthy anyone?) plays on the fears of the people.
Ballard ultimately seeks asylum in the church as the horde almost breaks the doors down. In the end, it’s a showdown between the two men who always had a beef to pick. One defenseless, the other armed and ready to get his revenge and if not revenge, then something even better. In the end, it’s another serendipitous moment, worthy of a Mythbusters episode, that closes the action and allows us to breathe again.
With every passing movie, I am always astounded by the obvious overlaps between the West and film noir, and it starts with personnel. John Alton was already mentioned. He is nearly as accomplished in color as black & white. Then, John Payne, not usually a western hero, nevertheless spent plenty of time roughhousing in the underworld. Even Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea are given a bit of a reunion after Too Late for Tears.
Duryea unequivocally steals the show again with a blistering, continually conniving performance. He truly has a monopoly on these roles, since he pulls them off with such conviction. Unfortunately, Scott while a dazzling, toxic femme fatale, has a fairly flat and monotone part to play here.
Both the western and noir are also both innately American genres. They have the opportunity to take elements that ring true about our society and really subject them to scrutiny. What are our ideals? How do we treat one another? What dictates our standards of truth and our sense of good versus evil?
There’s nothing that says you need to consider any of these themes to thoroughly enjoy Silver Lode as an incisive, high-intensity showdown, but it’s a testament to movies that work on multiple levels. It still boggles the mind Allan Dwan made as many films as he did. I haven’t seen many of them. Still, this one shows an indubitable competency in the craft. After all, he had a lot of practice.