Solid citizen Dan Ballard (John Payne) is getting married on the Fourth of July, almost as part of the town of Silver Lode's holiday celebration. An unwanted guest arrives in the form of the aforementioned Mr. McCarty (Dan Duryea), who has a warrant for Ballard's arrest, the authority of a U.S. marshal, and three tough deputies (Alan Hale jr., Harry Carey jr. and Stuart Whitman). Ballard killed a man a few years ago, just before moving to Silver Lode, and the victim happened to be McCarty's brother. Ballard doesn't deny the killing but claims it was in self-defense, while McCarty says his brother was backshot and $20,000 of his money stolen. He wants to leave town immediately with Ballard, but Ballard's lawyer friend rushes to the local judge to get a writ of habeus corpus, while Ballard's rowdier friends stand ready to take care of McCarty and his deputies. At this point, if you choose not to see the film as a historical commentary, there's a moment of admirable ambiguity. Movie fans are conditioned to see Dan Duryea as a heel and thus to mistrust McCarty immediately. But Ballard's friends seem way out of line in their eagerness to throw down against a marshal and his men, while Ballard himself has confessed himself a killer. Maybe there are no good guys here.
It turns out, though, that Ballard knows McCarty for what he really is, or isn't -- and so does the local saloon girl, Dolly (Dolores Moran). Things could be cleared up by wiring to San Francisco to verify McCarty's credentials, but because it's a holiday an answer won't be forthcoming, and anyway the wires just happen to be cut. Meanwhile, Ballard's bride Rose (Lizabeth Scott) stands by her man even as the rest of her family gradually turns against him. One of the little eccentricities of Silver Lode, perhaps a product of its female authorship, is how Ballard is backed by two resolute women who eventually work together with no hint of jealousy or competition between them. The ideal ending might have been for Ballard to leave town with both of them and light out for Utah. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
For a while Silver Lode is less McCarthy-era allegory than Hitchcockian western as Ballard's early attempts to clear himself only worsen his plight. Ballard is a little too open about his intent to bribe one of McCarty's deputies into admitting that the marshal is a fraud and a criminal in his own right. The attempt results in not only the deputy but the local Sheriff, one of Ballard's best allies to that point, getting shot down. In a darkly farcical moment, Ballard kayoes McCarty, who has actually killed both men, and picks up the marshal's guns, only to have the townsfolk break open the stable where it all went down to find our hero standing over two corpses with two guns in his hands. Ballard's standing in the town diminishes considerably from that point.
The rest of the way, Ballard has to stay on the run until the telegraph lines are restored, seeking shelter where he can within the town, as the marshal and a now-enraged citizenry pursue him. This is where Dwan gives the film some unique visual flavor. Silver Lode seems like a bigger town than we're used to seeing in westerns. We're used to seeing a single main street, and maybe a side street if we're lucky. By comparison, Silver Lode sprawls like a real town, giving Ballard room to run, even as the reappearance of soon-familiar landmarks reminds us of how little room he has. Dwan illustrates this with impressive tracking shots of John Payne running through the streets. Long takes like these were unusual in westerns of the time and they give Silver Lode a unique and memorable visual atmosphere.
Although the deck is stacked by the casting of Duryea, John Payne is ideally cast as an initially ambiguous hero. Payne could seem deceptively soft yet darken and harden in an instant. He's probably still best known by most people for Miracle on 34th Street, but the more I see of Payne the more the Christmas movie seems an exception that has distorted perceptions of the actor. He's really one of the better B-movie heroes of his time, and while his best work may be in Phil Karlson's modern-dress noir films, he's a credible western hero here and elsewhere. Silver Lode is ultimately a little too obvious for its own good -- perhaps there was too much temptation to allegorize at the expense of early moral suspense -- but it's still a solid western from the genre's golden age and worth a look as a movie rather than a political commentary.