Miscast meat-and-potatoes oater should still please hard-core Western fans. Olive Films, which has been making a name for itself pumping out hard-to-find Paramount library titles, has released Silver City, the 1951 Paramount color Western starring Edmond O'Brien, Yvonne De Carlo, Barry Fitzgerald, Richard Arlen, and Edgar Buchanan. Nothing on god's green earth is gonna make Edmond O'Brien a believable Western lead, but Silver City at least respects its Western conventions and delivers up some undemanding pleasures...with the main one undoubtedly dishy De Carlo in Technicolor®. No extras for this okay-looking transfer.
Mining engineer and assayer Larkin Moffatt (Edmond O'Brien) is ready to turn over a potentially lucrative report to ore miller and romantic rival Charles Storrs (Richard Arlen), right before two desperados―clued-in by Moffatt―hold up the assay office. Charlie is knocked to the ground, but he hears Moffatt express regret over his role in staging the robbery before Moffatt chases after the men. Moffatt recovers the money and the report, but to Charlie he's dead, with Charlie writing letters to everyone in the mining business, letting them know that Moffatt was fired for dishonesty. After this campaign, Moffatt can't get a job sawing logs, but after traveling to Silver City, he again sets up business as an assayer, where he informs Candace Surrency (Yvonne De Carlo) and her father, miner Dutch (Edgar Buchanan), that they've struck it rich. You see, Dutch rented a six-month mine lease from Silver City's bigwig, R. R. Jarboe (Barry Fitzgerald), but only in the last remaining days of the contract was silver found. So now Candace and Dutch have to pull as much ore out of the ground as possible before Jarboe again takes control of the mine...or has them killed by gunslinger henchman Bill Taff (Michael Moore). The arrival in Silver City of Charlie, along with Moffatt's former lover Josephine (Laura Elliott, a.k.a.: Kasey Rogers), sets feuds in motion between Moffatt and Charlie, between Moffatt and Jarboe, between Jarboe and Dutch, between Candace and Jarboe, between Candace and Josephine, between Josephine and Charlie, between Moffatt and Candace, and between Taff and Moffatt. And you probably thought getting the ore out of the ground was the hard part.
A mild mishmash that isn't exactly helped by central miscasting, Silver City isn't a terribly distinguished upper-end B Western, which is too bad, considering the caliber of people in front of and behind the camera. Director Byron Haskin (Walt Disney's live-action Treasure Island, the classic The War of the Worlds, The Naked Jungle, Robinson Crusoe on Mars) could usually be counted on to deliver at the very least a fast-moving, action-filled programmer, while pulp novelist/scripter Frank Gruber (Dressed to Kill, Northern Pursuit, tons of episodic TV) likewise knew his way around an unpretentious, entertaining storyline. Silver City, however, jumps around like a tick on a hot plate, flitting from one scene to the next without always giving the viewer a proper grounding for what follows.
I don't mind that Silver City opens right in the middle of a robbery, with basically no context as to why O'Brien is looking to steal, nor any background on the nature of O'Brien's and Arlen's sexual rivalry with Kasey Rogers. That kind of narrative shorthand is expected (and frankly welcome) in these entertainments; the movie just kicks right into gear, highlighted by a fairly exciting, nicely-staged outdoor action sequence on top of a lumber train. However, once O'Brien foils the robbers...we never see how he moves on to the next part of the story. Why didn't he return with the money? Why didn't he attempt to clear his name? We later learn, in a throwaway moment, that he returned all the stolen money: wouldn't that have be a critical scene to show? Even worse: how does he become a trusted assayer again in Silver City, if he can't keep a menial lumber job anywhere in the country? If his bad reputation followed him to all the corners of the mining community...wouldn't everyone have already known him in Silver City, especially since (rather inexplicably) he keeps using his real name? More sequences than not pop up in Silver City without a whole lot of context, making a viewer wonder if the movie's major problem lied not in the script but in the post edit. A perfect example is the fun barroom brawl where O'Brien needs to get his drunken crew back on the job. Haskins stages the extended scene well...but at its abrupt fade-out, it doesn't make any sense at all (what is O'Brien going to do with a bunch of either soused-unconscious or beaten-senseless workers...for a piddling six hour shift? We never know, because they don't show us).
Silly dialogue isn't any less common than choppy editing in these kinds of efforts, but Silver City has more than its fair share (my favorite is when gunslinger Moore tells O'Brien rather inexplicably, "You got a long nose," to which O'Brien sputters, "It gets longer when I smell something rotten...keep your nose out of my business!"). However, dialogue supplied by Welles and Mankiewicz wouldn't have helped poor Arlen, De Carlo, and O'Brien here (lets not even mention Fitzgerald). Arlen's usual stiffness at least feels "period," even if his character is largely irrelevant. De Carlo, at this point in her career rightly noted more for her sensuous eroticism rather than for any advanced thesping skills, always seemed to me a bit...embarrassed when she was asked to be sexy, and a tad too strident when asked to be "serious," so she loses out both ways here in Silver City. As for Fitzgerald (of course I was going to mention him), playing a supposedly ruthless, murderous mining baron as if he's a twinkle-in-the-eye leprechaun ready to dance a gig on a pot 'o gold, only further throws off Silver City.
Edmond O'Brien was just entering peak demand while filming Silver City, after his critically-lauded turn in the noir classic, D.O.A. the year before; he would go on to make two more middling Westerns with Haskins and Gruber, Warpath and Denver and Rio Grande, within the year. As interesting and skilled an actor as O'Brien was, he was rarely "right" in a stand-alone lead turn...and certainly not within the Western genre. Stocky and compact like a bulldog, O'Brien's mug and air is too modern, too urban, to ever be believable as a Western man of action (it's hard to determine―but good sport―what he has more trouble with: wielding that gun or steering around that filly). Would spitfire De Carlo really fight over squat, dumpy O'Brien? Maybe Cooper. Or Gable. Or Scott. Or even Silverheels. But not O'Brien (it doesn't help his "man of action" cred, either, that the doubling is so bad for O'Brien in even the tamest action scenes). Still, with all that said...Silver City does move along at an acceptable clip, with solid action throughout, bookended by two socko action sequences: the lumber train chase and the chase through the saw mill as the finale―a nicely-staged bit with some truly hairy gags as O'Brien's and Moore's stuntmen leap over huge logs and ride them right into massive buzz saws. There's that nice donnybrook of a saloon fight, along with assorted punch-outs here and there, with (once) gorgeous Technicolor® photography by master cinematographer Ray Rennahan (Becky Sharp, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Duel in the Sun), and a typically robust score from composer Paul Sawtell. It's a shame Silver City isn't more than that...but it's enough, I suppose, for Western fans who'll watch anything with a horse and a pistol. Including me.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.