Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Outlaw 2Day of the Outlaw, 1959, 92 mins, Blu-Ray

Directed by Andre de TothPitfall

Starring Robert RyanThe Woman on the Beach, Crossfire, The Set-Up, The Woman on Pier 13, Born to be Bad, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, The Naked Spur, House of Bamboo, Odds Against Tomorrow,

What a remarkable actor Robert Ryan was, what a presence he had. Having watched several of his films over the past year or so, I never fail to be amazed every time just how formidable he is, the tension in every moment, his conviction. He has so quickly become one of my favourite actors, in a mould quite all his own. A quite remarkable talent, and its sad that he’s likely largely unknown outside of film-lover circles: how many of the current generation even bother watching films fifty years old,  with the majority of Ryan’s filmography older even than that? I described him once as Gods Angry Man and that still remains true, most of his roles being complex, haunted, stormy characters at odds with the world around them. Absolutely fascinating: what modern-day equivalent do we have today in film?

Very often Ryan’s face is as cold and hard as the bleakest winter, so he’s perfectly cast here in what is, if nothing else, the definitive winter western; Day of the Outlaw is a terrific film, photographed in stark black and white to accentuate the harsh coldness of the setting and its characters, and really, there’s no-one here colder than Ryan’s Blaise Starrett, a rancher who is looking for trouble right from the start. “I’m through being reasonable,” he tells his foreman, Dan, when they arrive in the desolate, winter-blasted town of Bitters, Wyoming. Long, lingering panning-shots of the small town lost in the desolation easily establish what might as well be the End of the World; the road ends here, there is nowhere left to go.

Blaise is in town to settle a score with farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) who is putting up barbed-wire fences around his property. Blaise attests it is because his cattle will have nowhere to graze and it will block his annual cattle drive through the area, but does it instead have something to do with his recent ill-fated love affair with Helen (Tina Louise), Crane’s beautiful young wife? The first reel of the film progresses like its going to be a character drama about a doomed romantic triangle; an interesting one, certainly, but nothing suggests what is going to happen next.

Crane is a middle-aged farmer who has recently moved into the area like a few settlers have, civilization finally coming to the West mainly because cowboys like Blaise have cleaned up the area of scum and thieves through their blood and sacrifice over several violent years. Now with peace at hand, Blaise sees his possible prosperity threatened by these civilised families from out East who are coming in and taking over. Here we have the transition of the Western frontier to civilised society, and the cowboys questioning their part in it, what will be left for them.

Outlaw1Clearly, Crane is no match for the ruthless Blaise who doggedly insists on a showdown even though Crane’s wife regrets their affair and begs Blaise to leave her husband be. However, the gunfight between Blaise and Crane is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a gang of outlaws led by Captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives). Bruhn is a notorious ex-army captain who was responsible for a bloody massacre of Mormons a few years prior, and the gang of thieves he is leading are plainly degenerates, lecherously eying the town’s women.

The gang has committed a robbery and have been pursued across the snow-swept wilderness by cavalry who are a day or two behind. At Bruhn’s orders, the outlaws take over the town, seizing and destroying the townspeople’s weapons, while Bruhn enlists the aid of the town’s vet to treat his wounds from a recent skirmish. Bruhn’s men are anticipating civilization’s pleasures of drink and women, but Bruhn manages to hold them to his word that there will be no drinking and absolutely no raping of the town’s five women.

But Bruhn’s injuries are fatal-  after treating him the town’s vet, Doc Langer, confides in Blaise that he doesn’t think Bruhn will live more than a day or so, leaving the town at risk of the gang wreaking rape and murder if let loose upon Bruhn’s death (it is obvious they would not hesitate to kill everyone in the town to hide any evidence of their rapine crimes). Fearing the bloodshed which would inevitably follow Bruhn’s death, Blaise realises he is the only one who can save the townspeople, people he really didn’t care for at all just hours before.

He suggests to Bruhn that he knows a pass through the mountains through which the outlaws can evade their pursuers, but its a lie- he’s intending a one-way trek into the icy wilderness to eventual suicide (or his murder if the outlaws realise his gambit). Bruhn knows his grip on his desperate outlaws hangs in the balance, so welcomes the opportunity to leave the town behind. What follows is some thirty minutes of perilous journey into white doom.

Outlaw 5Outlaw 6Day of the Outlaw is just astonishing to look at.  The difficulties filming it must have been tremendous technically, and no doubt physically exhausting for everyone in front and behind the camera.  The very landscape becomes one of the films most major characters. Undoubtedly a great Western, its also a fascinating character piece, full of tension and emotional dynamics. The film was released in 1959, foreshadowing Peckinpah’s Westerns, most notably The Wild Bunch that was released ten years after, and of course Leone’s Westerns, and the Eastwood Westerns of the 1970s like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Jose Wales. The anger of the outlaws and the threat of rape and violence is palpable: this is an amoral West that has seized the town of Bitters, hinting at the savagery and misogyny of the Italian spaghetti Westerns that would come after. Was this film an indicator of the end of the old West?

There is a sense of grim reality to Day of the Outlaw, right down to the exterior set of the town being built a few months prior to filming to enable it to be convincingly weathered by rain and snow, and the rough emptiness of the interiors. Its perhaps more an American Nightmare than an American Dream of the West.

Outlaw 3Where better, then, to find grim anti-hero Robert Ryan grudgingly saving the day? Here’s a man who finally stared too long at his own reflection and didn’t like what he saw- at least, that is how he justifies his act of sacrifice to the confused Helen. It really almost feels like a film noir, no doubt a feeling increased by its black and white photography, but also because this film doesn’t have anything near traditional heroes. Its two chief characters, Blaise and Bruhn, seem morally dubious at best (Blaise was intent on cold-bloodied murder early in the film, and while Bruhn carries pretensions of military nobility he’s clearly under no illusions what he really is). There is a bleakness in their hearts as grim as the wilderness they plunge into towards the films finale. This may be one of Ryan’s best films, certainly one of his best performances, in a role that seems written just for him. Absolutely riveting.

Mind, while I’ve mentioned how amazing this film is to look at, I would be remis not to note that Tina Louise is so gorgeous, she looks like she could melt all the snow just walking across the landscape…

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5 thoughts on “Day of the Outlaw (1959)

  1. I’m pleased you liked this film, but I thought it would hit the spot for you. Russell Harlan’s cinematography is marvelous and you can almost feel the chill seeping through the screen. Ryan and Ives are so well cast too and it’s always a joy to see Elisha Cook Jr and Jack Lambert doing their thing.

    1. Yes, fantastic film, thanks for the recommendation. You’re right regards the cast, I think they are all very good, with some great familiar faces. Such a solid film; great cast working with a fine script, and the technical aspects were all top-notch. Hell of a film. Just a shame the Eureka Blu-ray doesn’t have a commentary track, the film really deserves one and its a bad omission for Eureka to make, but hey-ho, at least a UK Blu-Ray was available, I’m thankful for that (still can’t get over Raw Deal not being available here on disc). .

  2. Pingback: The Weekly Summary #12 – the ghost of 82

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