The film opens on an ominous note, as a tough looking bunch rides into the town of Silver Lode. Led by the snarling, abrupt McCarty (Dan Duryea) they are looking for a man named Dan Ballard (John Payne), and discover him in the middle of his wedding to the richest girl in town, Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott). The film then proceeds to turn the tables on us. McCarty, it turns out, is a U S Marshall, there to arrest Ballard for murder.
It’s very easy to miss this little sleight of hand, but ultimately, that’s what Silver Lode is about – changing perceptions. The townspeople at first rally to Ballard’s defense, but soon, some of them start to back-peddle. Ballard, after all, has only lived amongst them for two years. How well do they really know him? The Marshall’s story has Ballard shooting McCarty’s brother in the back and stealing $20,000 from him. The town’s banker observes that Ballard deposited $20,000 shortly after moving there. The whispers increase.
When Silver Lode was released in 1954, the United States was still in the throes of the McCarthy/ HUAC era. Fred Zinneman had already broached the subject in High Noon in 1952. High Noon was a veiled attack on the Red scare, but it could have also been watched as a more or less standard Western. Silver Lode was much more up front with its message. Take the villain of this film, the bullying, supposed lawman, who has little regard for legal process. It’s no accident that his name is McCarty.
Accused of murder, Ballard has only one hope – exposing McCarty as a fraud. To do this he has to send a telegram to a faraway town to check on McCarty’s story. In the meantime, the phony Marshall stirs up the feeling of the townspeople against Ballard. There is absolutely no hard evidence against Ballard, just the word of McCarty, and the movie makes the subtle point that McCarty’s being in a position of authority enables him to orchestrate the townspeople into conclusions that they should be questioning. Much as a Senator might be able to do.
The only people who support Ballard are two good women – His wife to be, and a prostitute named Dolly (Whom Ballard was once involved with). It’s in the passages with the women that Silver Lode is weakest. Dolly is the prototypical sharp-tongued whore with a heart of gold, and Scott doesn’t get to do much other than look stricken.
As Ballard struggles to save his life, he ends up with the whole town ready to shoot him on sight, and the final passages of SL feature some rousing action and gunplay. The climax features a shoot-out between Ballard and McCarty in a church bell tower, with the whole town looking on. The showdown is resolved in a fashion which might make some throw up their hands and go “Oh, Come ON!!!” but look closely at the bell that is central to the films finale. It looks an awful lot like the Liberty Bell, and as such, it gives Silver Lode a fitting little coda. The false accuser is destroyed by one of the great symbols of America.