Silver Lode (1954), directed by Allan Dwan, finds John Payne playing Dan Ballard, who we meet on his wedding day to Rose (Lizabeth Scott). It’s also the 4th of July, and on that day Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea) rides into town with his men (Alan Hale Jr., Stuart Whitman and Harry Carey Jr.), identifies himself as a U.S. Marshal and presents an arrest warrant for Dan Ballard. Dan knows Ned as the brother of a man he shot, and claims he’s no lawman but has just come to get revenge. Dan is a strong silent type, which is partly why he puts up a weak defense. He waits to explains himself and depends on the patience, good will and support of the town that has known him only as an upstanding citizen and good man for the past two years. Dan puts his faith in the legal process, but that’s complicated by a federal holiday and some murky extradition procedures, and for the rest of the movie Dan fights a losing battle against time, a lack of evidence, a convincing accuser and a town’s growing suspicion.
Ned plays the citizens of Silver Lode like a violin, feeding their doubts and hypocrisy until he whips them into a frenzied lynch mob, so far gone they’re ready to shoot Dan down even as he peeks out the window of the church steeple, for Pete’s sake. It’s horrific and revolting to watch nearly a whole town of loyal friends turn against a man, who by their own accounts, has only shown them kindness and generosity. There are so many frustrating turns, as when Dan gets the truth out of Ned’s man Johnson (Carey Jr.), but then Johnson unwisely stands up in Ned’s line of fire and gets himself killed. The Sheriff (Emile Meyer) discovers Ned is the villain, but he gets killed and Dan is dumb enough to get caught holding all the guns. Still it’s gripping with no dull moments as events unfold in real time. When everyone finally finds out that Ned is an impostor who only came for vengeance, and Dan is innocent of the charges, they apologize. Good for Dan for not letting them off easy, for thoroughly shaming them, making them understand the pain and suffering they put him through, and the deaths caused in all the confusion.
It’s an unmistakable and powerful metaphor not just for its intended target, McCarthyism, but for any kind of mob mentality and groupthink. The only people in Silver Lode who stand by Dan, pull strings and do some questionable but necessary things to save him from the lynch mob, are Rose and Dan’s former girlfriend, saloon girl Dolly (Dolores Moran). It’s so much fun to see the colourful, caring and sassy Dolly put the chattering, judgmental “louses” in their place and play the false accusation game to get poor Paul the telegraph man (Frank Sully) to send wires that’ll save Dan. Duryea does another great villain turn here, convincingly adamant about the letter of the law on his documents, but as he grabs control and urges the crowd to take the law into their own hands, he increasingly worries cooler heads like the Judge (Robert Warwick) and Reverend (Hugh Sanders). But with Dan’s reluctance to fight back misinterpreted as an admission of guilt, and Ned using frameups, threats and lies, it’s easy to fool people who don’t stop to think for themselves.
Dwan and cinematographer John Alton make it all look good and I was especially impressed by the bookend journeys through town. First Dan walks through after his wedding has been interrupted, and everyone falls behind him a literal show of support for their hometown hero. That’s a huge contrast to the way he races through town near the movie’s end, as a wounded fugitive and hunted animal trying to get away from those very same people.