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Silver Lode: Special Edition (DVD Review)

31 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$14.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars John Payne, Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea.

To make a movie in the early 1950s attacking McCarthyism, a filmmaker had to be indirect, and camouflaging the story in Western trappings (the way Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar did) was a good way to go. But in silent film veteran Allan Dwan’s quickly but resourcefully directed color cheapie, the villain’s name is “McCarty,” which gets bonus points for cheekiness at the time. (Silver Lode was shot before the Army-McCarthy Hearings and released after — though several months before the Wisconsin senator was censured by his colleagues.)

One of the better Westerns that rode in on High Noon’s buckboard, Lode exhibits the limitations of low-budget filmmaking, which reduces its effectiveness as a political tract. Yet it is so well made under the circumstances that you can see why it is a favorite of Martin Scorsese’s, is featured in the juicy 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die tome that I have by my bedside and why Andrew Sarris lauded it in his 1968 landmark The American Cinema (as he does Dwan’s career overall). VCI previously released Lode early in the decade but here gives it a fresh spiff-up, fine-tuning the film’s inherently expressive Technicolor and cleaning up wear that detracted from its DVD predecessor’s print.

Prominent citizen but relative town newcomer John Payne is just about to be married to Lizabeth Scott on the Fourth of July when Dan Duryea’s McCarty rides in with a supporting all-star cast of deputies (Harry Carey, Jr., Alan Hale, Jr. and then screen novice Stuart Whitman, who seven years later would be top-billed with John Wayne in The Comancheros). Duryea, Mr. Honeymoon Killer, announces that he’s a Federal marshal in town to arrest Payne for a shot-in-the-back murder from a couple years earlier.   

Through a series of bad breaks and coincidences that progressively put Payne in a rotten light, most of his so-called friends take on a pack mentality and turn against him — even though Duryea is so transparently slimy that certain townsfolk have to overcome initial discomfort. It’s as if Alfonso Bedoya, who played the bandit chief in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, rode into town and announced that he was a Fed.

Independently produced by Benedict Bogeaus for release by a dying RKO, the movie was shot by the justifiably famed John Alton – one of the most famous figures in all of black-and-white film noir, though one whose Oscar came for the Technicolor (I’ll say) An American in Paris. Photography, staging and taut 77-minute pacing have a lot to do with why Lode is far from a load, even if some of the supporting players could have used a few more retakes.

But not Payne and especially not Duryea and not any scenes involving Dolores Moran — in real life, Mrs. Bogeaus for a while and here making her final screen appearance. She is totally dead-on as the town dancehall girl/floozy and one can only speculate what else, in love with Payne but unable to pull off a miracle (Scott’s family has prestige). Moran’s looks are worn enough to convince us that she does what she does for a living, but she’s still flashy enough to look pretty good in burg where about 95 per cent of the women are prematurely aged crones (nearly all of whom are vocal about wanting to string up Payne or close).

Lode is what exhibitors used to call a “shaky ‘A’” — meaning that it could be placed at the top, or bottom, of a double bill, depending on the situation. In my hometown, it played at the RKO Grand downtown billed above a really obscure British mystery called The Blue Parrot (certain Ohio bookers at the time who paired movies together sometimes anticipated crackheads). According to my childhood logs, the box office competition that month included box office magnets like Three Coins in the Fountain, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Living It Up and The High and the Mighty — which partially explains how a little movie this efficient could get so buried before American film history got rewritten in the 1970s. Johnny Guitar opened that month, too — which means that the same people who were protecting Payne’s back here must have been protecting McCarthy’s.

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