Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Payne, Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Dolores Moran, Emile Meyer, Robert Warwick, John Hudson, Harry Carey Jr., Alan Hale Jr., Stuart Whitman, Frank Sully, Morris Ankrum, Hugh Sanders, Florence Auer, Roy Gordon
Written by: Karen DeWolf
Directed by: Allan Dwan
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 81
Date: 06/24/1954

Silver Lode (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Western Hunt

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

No one ever had a career quite like director Allan Dwan, and no one ever will again. He directed over 400 films in a career that spanned from 1911 to the early 1960s. Of course, most of those were one- and two-reelers made during the silent era, but according to all reports, he quickly developed an easy, lean, style and kept that up throughout his entire career. It's hard to qualify him as an auteur, since hardly anyone alive has seen a significant number of his films. (Peter Bogdanovich has done probably the most extensive research, having spent a great deal of time with Dwan during the final decades of his life, and having published a long interview in his book "Who the Devil Made It?") However, in short, Dwan was always a dependable, quality director, and even his missteps seem perfectly suited to his talents.

His career highlights include the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood (1922), which was reportedly the first million-dollar movie, as well as its follow-up, The Iron Mask (1929). He was one of Shirley Temple's favorite directors, having made Heidi (1937) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). He also teamed up the Ritz Brothers and Bela Lugosi for The Gorilla (1939). He made more low-budget, well-loved comedies in the 1940s, and ended the decade with one of his greatest successes, the Oscar-nominated Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). In the 1950s, he made a series of low-budget Westerns, some with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. One of his high points, though, is Silver Lode.

This movie made such an impression on Martin Scorsese that he singled it out for inclusion in his great documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1996). Scorsese focused on one particular scene in which Dan Ballard (John Payne), hunted by an entire town, slips along a back street looking for a place to hide and recover. Dwan follows him for a good, long while without cutting, and the camera moves alongside him in a kind of loping fashion. It was probably meant as a money-saver, but Dwan also managed to capture the mood of the entire film in that one shot, more or less off-kilter and paranoid, but still hopeful and pro-active.

During the Fourth of July festivities in Silver Lode, Ballard is about to marry the town beauty Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott). Unfortunately, a slimy marshal, Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea) turns up, claiming that Ballard is under arrest for the murder of the marshal's brother (whom Ballard supposedly shot in the back, no less). It's a very Langian type story, in which every move Ballard makes to clear his name only results in making him looking increasingly guilty. Even Rose begins to stop trusting him. But Ballard's former flame, the town's wealthy, brazen, good-time girl Dolly (Dolores Moran) decides to help him, which, inevitably, gets him into even deeper trouble with Rose.

It's a very tense and sturdy little script by Karen DeWolf, clearly an attack on McCarthyism and mob rule. Dwan directs with an amazingly clever, economical style; for example, he makes brilliant use of windows throughout the film, with characters given different statures depending on which side they're on. A climactic scene inside a church is especially notable, with gloomy slats of darkness falling between the pews, and gleams of light hopefully shining in the corners. (The gorgeous color cinematography is by the great John Alton.) In all, Dwan captures the sense of an entire town using only a few simple sets and streets. Along with the unique Passion (1954), this is my favorite of Dwan's Westerns.

VCI Entertainment released Silver Lode on DVD back in 2002, and now they have followed up with a "Special Edition." I'm not sure whether it's remastered, but it looked pretty good on my new HDTV. Unfortunately, it looks as if a tiny sliver of the picture has been shaved off from the left side, and some of the compositions don't look quite right. Likewise, it still has no subtitles or captions. Extras include two brief featurettes, one on Dwan and another on actor John Payne, who worked with Dwan four times but was better known for his role in Miracle on 34th Street.

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