By the time he helmed Silver Lode in 1954, Allan Dwan had been directing films for four decades, trying his hand at every genre one could think of (as Peter Bogdanovich puts it in his introduction to Who the Devil Made It, ‘from 1909 to 1961, he [Dwan] was involved in the making of something like one thousand films, directing more than four hundred of them’). Closer then to the end of his career than the beginning of it, Dwan nonetheless released a string of some of his best (and best known) features from 1954 – 1956: Silver Lode, Passion, Tennessee’s Partner, Slightly Scarlett, Escape to Burma, and Cattle Queen of Montana (all produced by Benedict Bogeaus for RKO Pictures and all photographed by the great John Alton). They represent a tidy summation of Dwan’s oeuvre, his penchant for approaching a wide variety of stories (westerns, exotic action-adventure tales, noir-tinged crime thrillers) with the same unflappable energy and keen eye for straightforward staging. Perhaps his lack of an instantly noticeable ‘style’ is what has kept him from the same acclaim as many of his more famous peers – Ford, Hawks, Walsh, and Hitchcock, but also Griffith (Dwan became a director only two years after D.W., and created the first crane shot for Intolerance in 1916), Tourneur, and the slightly younger guys like Welles, Ray, and de Toth, But make no mistake, Dwan is as much a case for auteurism as this coterie of geniuses. 2013 marked something of a renaissance for Dwan fans; despite longtime admirers like Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese carrying a torch for him (alongside forward-thinking critics like Dave Kehr), the release of Frederic Lombardi’s book Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studio alongside a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York signaled something of a sea change in terms of mainstream recognition. While Dwan’s most popular films remain his biggest (in terms of scale and budget), like the John Wayne war picture Sands of Iwo Jima, a reevaluation was now well under way.
For those looking to dive into this dauntingly large filmography, Silver Lode is as good a starting point as any. A self-reflexive Western (don’t call it revisionist, a mostly useless term), Silver Lode transpires across one long day in the titular town; festooned with decorations for a 4th of July celebration, it’s a symbolically loaded morality tale about the cowardice and avarice of the average American. The film begins as U.S. Marshall Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) and a posse of deputies arrive in town looking to arrest Dan Ballard (John Payne). Ballard is smack in the middle of a wedding ceremony to Rose (Lizabeth Scott), and the assembled townsfolk are shocked at the presence of this lawman. But Ballard and McCarty have a history together, and Ballard doesn’t believe that McCarty is a real Marshall. What follows is a complicated narrative of greed, revenge, and questionable identities. The town judge declares that the warrant for Ballard’s arrest is legitimate, even as Ballard repeatedly declares his innocence. McCarty throws his weight around and, since he is played by Duryea, one of the great sneering slime balls of the era, Rose’s family and the local sheriff are very inclined to take Ballard’s word. But the law is the law, and eventually everyone agrees that Ballard must go with McCarty. Ballard buys himself two hours to settle some business, and the ticking clock begins. He must figure out a way to prove that McCarty is an imposter and thereby prove his own innocence, all under the watchful eye of an increasingly agitated town.
Silver Lode is generally considered a thinly-veiled indictment of McCarthyism, which seems like a fairly obvious read on the material. Dwan expertly charts the townsfolk’s increasing animosity towards Ballard as they buckle under the pressure of the aggressive and wily McCarty. Using the rule of law and hypocritical standards of decorum, they gradually transform from friends to foe and eventually a rabid mob. As befits this searing critique of small minded mob mentality, the only people who continue to stand by Ballard are his fiancée and the town prostitute, Dolly (Dolores Moran), whom Ballard carried on with before meeting the more respectable Rose. It all builds to rousing climax set in the town church (another bit of heavy symbolism) and a metaphoric ‘act of god’ that snaps the mob out of its frenzied state. But the damage is done, and the heart of darkness has been exposed for all to see. A lot to chew on in this low budget oater that clocks in at barely 80 minutes.
Of course Dwan shoots the heck out of all of this. McCarty is introduced via a shot peering from the ground up to him on horseback, ominous and portentous (another shot of children gleefully setting off fireworks seems to presage a similar shot in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch). But other than the occasional pan left or right, Dwan and Alton prefer simple setups that allow them to stack bodies in a static frame. It makes for lovely, bustling images, allowing the actors to interact with each other in carefully choreographed bits of movement. And when Dwan chooses to insert something more audacious, it really pops. As tensions mount and Ballard evades the mob, the camera begins to shoot through windows and curtains, bisecting the image and enclosing Ballard. The film also features one of the great tracking shots, as Ballard finds himself running across an empty town square while pursuers emerge from the recesses of the background. The camera stays on him as he cuts across the open space, a flurry of movement that contrasts sharply with the rest of the film’s visual scheme. It’s breathtakingly kinetic. In a long, excellent 2013 piece for Bright Lights Film Journal, titled Allan Dwan: Between the Lines, critic Imogen Sara Smith quotes Chris Fujiwara, that Dwan’s ‘is a cinema of the return of the exile and the acceptance and embrace of home.’ Silver Lode suggests something much darker than that – you can’t go home again, not when your friends and neighbors have revealed their true nature. This is a damning portrait of Americana gone horribly wrong.