Silver Lode (1954)

15 08 2013

So here’s a better example of what made Allan Dwan so vital: a tight, but energetic western that runs around 80 minutes. Sure, its allusions to McCarthyism are fairly obvious, but this actually works in the film’s favor Unlike the more acclaimed High Noon, which this film is forever linked to, Dwan doesn’t dwell on his social commentary. It’s there and it’s easy to read, but he hasn’t turned away from the genre. In a way, it makes the allegory more powerful: he hasn’t sacrificed any action to reinforce the message. The result is a film that flows so fast and effortlessly that it will take multiple viewings to truly appreciate everything that is jammed into it.


It’s July 4th and Dan Ballard is getting married to Rose Evans. The ceremony is interrupted by one Ned McCarthy, a US Marshal who has a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. McCarthy’s motivation is personal, he claims that his brother was shot in the back by Dan. The ceremony is put on hold and McCarthy grants Ballard’s two hours of freedom. With the time allotted, Ballard attempts to find evidence to prove his own innocence. The townspeople quickly turn on Ballard, and begin to question their previous idea about him.


The narrative trajectory isn’t exactly remarkable. Ballard ends up being the wrongly accused man who has to fight against all the skeptics, sometimes even literally. The plot isn’t what sells a film like this, though. It is instead how much meat Dwan is able to slam into such a tight film. This isn’t to say the film is heavy on action because it isn’t, but it feels like there’s enough here for three films from another director. The form seems to be so in service of the storytelling that it’s easy to miss some of the more virtuoso moments Dwan has with the camera, but that’s a sign of truly effective filmmaking.


The script is a pretty clear allegory for America’s Red Scare to the point that the film’s villain is named McCarthy. This seems sort of sloppy and lazy, but it shows that has Dwan has his priorities right. A film that would devote too much energy into its allusions would feel too out of sync with any genre, but it fits partly because Dwan is able to deliver something that still feels like an action film. It isn’t a self-consciously “serious” message film. Instead,  the ideology seems to come from the story playing out, rather than being jammed into its wiring.


For all of the film’s obvious allusions to the paranoia of 1950’s America, there is something that still resonates today. People here are constantly peering through windows. John Alton’s wonderful and jarring color cinematography frames a voyeur in the foreground and the object of their gaze in the background. This is good for introductory level psychoanalytic film theory, but even better is just the beauty in the depth of the images. Despite the limitations of the academy ratio, there seems to be layers of activity in almost every frame, perhaps the perfect visualization for Dan Ballard’s state. There’s always someone behind him to scrutinize his behavior.


The most impressive thing about Silver Lode is how many wonderful individual moments Dwan manages to sandwich in-between the story. Ballard has a moment with an old flame, Dolly, which is so typically Hollywood from a narrative perspective but feels legitimate under his control. Any jaded cinephile will know how a film such as this one ends, but it says something that Dwan is still able to place some uncertainty in the viewer. That’s really the hallmark of any great genre film, but its always something of a surprise when you run into something that truly energizes you. It’s not that Dwan has made a film that will make one forget about the academic part of cinema. He made one that is a blast and can be appreciated only further with it.