Sunday, December 29, 2013

Silver Load

The Western “Silver Load” (1954) seems conceived as a rejoinder to Fred Zinneman’s “High Noon” made two years earlier. Allan Dwan, the director of “Silver Load”, cut his teeth in the silent era; he was a yeoman film-maker, a Hollywood studio salary-man, and his movies are generally regarded as uninmaginative and pedestrian. “Silver Load” is woodenly acted and some of the dialogue is stiff and contrived -- the principal characters are stereotypes and the movie is decidedly low on expressive atmospherics: the lighting is flat, uniform, and blandly expository and there are no exciting horse chases through badlands, in fact, no sense at all of figures moving through grandiose terrain, the hallmark of most famous and well-remembered Westerns. As with “High Noon,” the entire story takes place in a dull village, neither too dusty nor dirty, a plywood and two-by-four hamlet of small houses, modest public buildings and storefronts, centered around a wood-frame church with steeple. The plot approximates the situation of “High Noon” and, like that film, maintains an Aristotelian unity of time and action -- the movie takes place in real time over the course of ninety-or-so minutes all within the confines of the village. When the hero, stolidly played by an inert John Payne, bargains for two hours reprieve from being lynched, we grasp that this period of time will represent, more or less, the length of the movie. Remarkably, however, “Silver Load” is well-scripted and, in fact, packed with far more interesting moral and ethical dilemmas than the rather more schematic (if better made) “High Noon” -- the ideas in “Silver Load” are more complex and the film is far more profound and realistic about human behavior and issues relating to law and order. Unfortunately, the acting is weak, the mise-en-scene lacks ingenuity, and “Silver Load” has been forgotten, despite its excellent and ingenious script, because the implementation of its ideas is flawed: it doesn’t have a big star like Gary Cooper, and there is nothing like Dmitri Tiomkins famous score to underline the important moments in Dwan’s movie. The situation is this: four outlaws ride into Silver Load, a remote Nevada village, looking for a prominent local citizen. It’s the Fourth of July and the prominent man’s wedding day. The outlaws are revealed to have a search warrant and seem to be Federal Marshals. Notwithstanding their apparent credentials. the town folk instinctively side with the prominent citizen, a man who appeared mysteriously in the village two years earlier with $20,000 and who seems to have purchased not only the loyalty, but the love, of the villagers. Far from deserting the hero, the townspeople rally enthusiastically to his defense and, in fact, seem willing to massacre the Federal Marshals, who are vindictive and sinister, to protect their friend. The hero sets about to prove that he is innocent of the charges asserted against him by the marshals. But these efforts are thwarted and, ultimately, there is some gunplay resulting in the death of the local sheriff and a couple of his deputies. We understand that the hero is, in fact, innocent of the federal charges lodged against him -- charges that are merely a pretense to get him out of town to by “dry-gulched” by the assassins impersonating law enforcement officers. What makes this interesting is a series of cunningly maintained ambiguities -- we don’t really know anything about the hero’s background. The imposter marshal yanks the man out of a prosperous house on the day of the hero’s marriage to a local dignitary’s daughter -- the bride seems rather stiff, prudish, and unpleasant (she’s also not particularly attractive and spends the movie prancing around in an unbecoming wedding dress.) The local people seem much too willing to defend the hero and, then, of course, after a few townsfolk are shot, they switch sides and become a ravening mob, seeking to gun him down. The hero doesn’t hesitate to shoot local citizens who are trying to kill him and, in fact, on several occasions takes hostages and uses them as human shields to protect him from the mob’s gunfire. Indeed, the man defined as the “good guy” by the movie shoots his future brother-in-law and threatens to kill his father-in-law by shooting him in the back. In the end, the mob’s violence is averted by a transparent lie, establishing very effectively that the townsfolk are completely irrational, driven by blood-lust, blind loyalty, and hysteria. The film moves quickly. It even has a bravura action sequence -- a long continuous tracking shot that shows the wounded hero fleeing across the entire village, running through alleys and past several blocks of buildings, all the while under fire by villagers who are gunning for him -- the sequence is effective because so simply filmed and choreographed; a viewer might even accuse Dwan of laziness in the way that he stages this episode, simply tracking the hero as he staggers and runs through the town for two or three minutes -- but the result is undeniably exciting.. “Silver Load” isn’t beautiful and has no nostalgia for the Old West -- it is, in fact, purely sociological in its study of mob dynamics, but the movie is ambitious and thought-provoking. If film were primarily a medium for expression of ideas, "Silver Load," which is smarter than "High Noon" would be a better movie -- but, alas, film's aren't primarily about ideas...

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