The 4th of July celebrations are about to get underway in the small western town of Silver Lode, but four men have just arrived in town on horseback and are seeking Dan Ballard (John Payne), a pillar of the community for a good two years now and owner of a ranch in the area. These men are led by Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) and the locals don't like the look of them, not even when McCarty tells them he's a Marshal who is seeking to arrest Ballard, and is willing to gatecrash his wedding to Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) to do so. At first the townsfolk are shocked, and question this newcomer in their midst, but he has credentials that back up his claims - and those claims include an accusation of murder.
You cannot really mention Silver Lode without mentioning High Noon, a far more prestigious picture that had recently enjoyed big success, whereas this was a B-movie, albeit one its producer Benedict Bogeaus had pushed the boat out for and had it made in colour, recognising the strength of Karen DeWolf's script, one of a small number of notable Westerns penned by a woman. But where High Noon was sorrowful and nervy, Silver Lode was downright angry, and its cult following today is part of the opinion it was the better film. Could you compare Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly to Payne and Scott? Actually, maybe you could this time, for the way events play out here is both tense and intelligent.
Maybe it was a case of all the right talent, some better known than others, coming together in the right place and time, but Silver Lode had political ambitions to criticise the Senator Joseph McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts of the era which offered proceedings a hefty kick of righteous fury. Although Payne was a well-known conservative, his casting was appropriate since it showed up this career-ending scapegoating was harming all sides of the political spectrum, and was un-American in a manner that its exponents would deny; or perhaps he really liked the act of God that closed the story. As it is, the plot unfolded in real time, just like that other movie, as Ballard is accused of the crime with no proof other than the word of Marshal McCarty (geddit?).
Dan Duryea was one of the great villainous actors, an art which seems to have been relegated to the lower budget, more disposable end of the market in the twenty-first century, but to watch him in this case was to appreciate a masterclass in weaselly, crafty and conniving evil: what an Iago this actor would have made. We can tell just by looking at him that McCarty is a wrong 'un, but he is very persuasive when most of the townsfolk buy into his lies because the suspicion he plants in their minds is something they all-too-readily embrace, bypassing their common sense and speaking to a nasty part of them which is less than admirable that not too many would admit to. Not that Ballard doesn't suffer his bad luck too - when he is in the barn with one of the henchmen who can tell him everything, McCarty bursts in and shoots the man.
When Ballard picks up guns to defend against his nemesis, the rest of the town bursts in too, not having caught McCarty gunning down the Sheriff before he can reveal all. There follows some of the most exciting sequences in fifties Westerns, guided by director Allan Dwan who keeps things hurtling along and cinematographer John Alton whose superb work backed him up: the long tracking shot as the hero evades his pursuers is rightly lauded. Only two people are prepared to believe Ballard, Rose, and even she is tested, and the saloon girl (read: prostitute) Dolly (the excellent Dolores Moran, in her last film as scandal hampered her career); they become his sole allies as they fight to get a telegraph message to the authorities which will exonerate him. Positively heaving at the seams with its outrage, Silver Lode builds to a climax all the more satisfying for having Ballard tell the locals exactly what he thinks of them in no uncertain terms. The conclusion that some betrayals are too much to forgive resonates in a gem that deserved to be better known. Music by Louis Forbes.