Directed by Allan Dwan
Written by Karen DeWolf
The joy of doing a deep dive into a single genre, especially one as popular and voluminous as Westerns, is that the genre itself runs the gambit. There are tons of films to check out when given the generic label of “western”, which means big budget, small budget, comedy, drama, romance, etc. Westerns aren’t really a genre even, just a specific time and place in which a story can unfold, and even in that regard, the possibilities are endless. I open with all this commentary because Silver Lode is a very small film, one that I am willing to bet very few casual fans of the genre may have seen. And as such, it’s a hidden gem for everything it does right, while also being an incredibly small and underwhelming production in terms of values. Silver Lode is a great example of what you can get with a great story probably produced on the cheap and in a hurry. It’s an easy recommend to any fan of the genre, but anyone looking for the greatest films of all time will likely see the warts instead of focusing on the beauty hidden deep within.
Dan Ballard (John Payne) has been a stand up resident in Silver Lode for two years, becoming a friend and contributor to the community. But on his wedding day, a gang of US Marshalls led by a man named McCarty (Dan Duryea), comes to town with a warrant for Ballard for the murder of McCarty’s brother. Swearing of his innocence, Ballard tries to gain the sympathy of his bride (Lizabeth Scott) and the other townspeople. But as McCarty and his gang begin to present evidence, a series of events unfolds in the most unfortunate manner for Ballard to be able to prove his innocence. Given his newly dire circumstance, Ballard must now fight tooth and nail to prove his innocence, instead of being given the benefit of the doubt from the townspeople, who after two years are now beginning to turn on him.
It’s very interesting to compare taste across multiple subjects. Often various aspects of a film are weighed completely differently, which is one of the many charms of movies and trying to evaluate and discuss them. For instance, I’m often a big fan of production values like beautiful sets/costumes and cinematography, including locations, while others might focus more on the acting performances, or camera movements, or screenwriting/plotting. All are integral to the success of a movie, and I value them all very highly (and would like to think I can identify and praise any aspect when done extremely well). With Silver Lode, the screenwriting is the greatest achievement, taking a very lean story, but positioning it just so, and developing minor details and scenarios that play out nearly picture perfect. It’s a wonder to see Ballard navigate the many pitfalls to find his way to innocence and justice. It’s among one of the best storylines/executions in the marathon to date.
However, I will say it plays out much like a B-movie western, which isn’t meant as an insult, there are some great B-movies out there, this one included. But what I mean is that the acting is nothing significant, and you can easily tell this is being shot with limited locations likely on a backlot of a studio somewhere with building/rooms that have been used for countless other westerns of the era. Hard to criticize a studio for being thrifty, but I think this style does create a ceiling to a film that doesn’t necessary transcend in any other area. What results is a very strong film, and one I can happily recommend to genre enthusiasts. It’s a wonderful artifact of a style of filmmaking that no longer exists sadly. And I do mean sadly. Not every movie needs to be Gone with the Wind, for instance. There is great value in the quickly made, craftsman-style films of the studio era. Silver Lode is a prime example of this. Perhaps I’m being too hard on a film like this though, as it’s nearly at the pinnacle of its potential given the restraints. There is much to be said about something like that. I may need to rewatch at some point out in the future to grow my appreciation of an otherwise very strong film.