Day of the Outlaw, 1959.
Directed by André De Toth.
Starring Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, and Tina Louise.
Blaise Starrett is a rancher at odds with homesteaders when outlaws hold up the small town. The outlaws are held in check only by their notorious leader, but he is diagnosed with a fatal wound and the town is a powder keg waiting to blow.
1959. Howard Hawks makes Rio Bravo, widely and rightly considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Shot in beautiful Technicolor ensuring the Tucson landscapes and Ricky Nelson beautiful face hold the attention whenever they’re on screen, Hawks film ran at a handsome 140 minutes, with clear lines between the good guys and the bad. A monumental piece of cinema but one we’ve all seen. Thanks to Masters Of Cinema, we can now enjoy an equally masterful but entirely contrasting Western from the same year as Hawk’s masterpiece, on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.
A decade before Sam Peckinpah would make the indispensible revisionist take on the Old West in The Wild Bunch, André De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw would question perceptions of the hero, anti-hero, law and order, and masculinity values without the usual Western tropes added in to please audiences. The movie is taut with tension and drama from the very start; barely two minutes have passed before we learn that our leading man, Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett, is romantically with another man’s wife, and is willing to kill the husband to have her all for himself. Starrett is ready for a stand-off in the saloon to settle matters and it’s one against five, which tells us all we need to know about his ability to hold his own in a lawless town (literally so). The town is ‘the end of the trail’, no man can survive beyond here against the cruel and unforgiving snow and ice of the Wyoming winter, and the community takes care of itself. Dean Martin most certainly will not appear and sing a song in this town; notably, too, a constructed town rather than an obvious Hollywood set, which adds to the realism of what will soon take place.
Here then comes one of the great inciting incidents of any film I’ve seen, throwing the audience off guard and ready to root for the bad guy. Starrett asks for an empty bottle to be rolled from one end of the bar to the other, and when it falls, they draw. In one of two standout camera moves in an otherwise restrained movie, Toth follows the bottle on its journey to the inevitable end of it and perhaps several men’s lives, only for the saloon door to open and stop the bottle and Toth’s audience dead in its tracks. In a walk a group of outlaws whose leader, Jack Bruhn, (Burl Ives) is injured and needs medical attention. All guns are taken from the townsfolk, and seemingly is any hope for a swift ending. Toth’s film hereon plays out more like a moody noir piece than it does a Western; the black and white photography gives the already cold surroundings an even greater chill, with Ives playing his role as the leader like a gangster in full command of his newly acquired town; (He and his men even look like the Wild Bunch at times, which Ryan would coincidentally go on to star in.) Tension fills every scene, with violence threatening to explode at any moment without warning. Fist fights break out, some people are killed, but violence will ultimately resolve nothing. Ironic, given what would have happened if that whisky bottle fell as planned.
Bruhn knows he can control the situation if he can control his men; no whiskey or women are allowed, but this spikes the desires of the outlaws even further when they have to play by a set of rules. The saloon is practically empty before they even arrive and there isn’t a whorehouse in sight. When Bruhn finally gives in to a drink-free dance, Toth shows us the second outstanding camera set up, a panoramic whirl of the man and women dancing as the women are passed around like rag dolls faster and faster as if on a never-ending loop of fear, with the fear of a mass rape linger in every shot. Everyone is powerless, masculinity is questioned, and redemption beckons for Starrett. He agrees to lead the outlaws out the town regardless of their not being a trail or marked route of any kind. It’s a suicide mission where nature is the killer, and one can only image these scenes were hell to film.
The ending fuses traditional Western and noir styling. Whilst we have a somewhat heroic conclusion, I was left wondering what was next for Starrett and the town he returns to. Conflicts are still unresolved and open wounds are still sore. Another bottle would roll down the saloon bar again in time, I’m sure of that. I’m also sure of something else; Day of the Outlaw is an essential take on the genre it clearly loves, yet has so much more to offer than just beautiful scenery or great shoot outs. I often wonder why some films get left behind and other are remembered so fondly, but the outstanding work by Masters Of Cinema means audience can be reintroduced to such forgotten masterworks like this one, and many others, in the best transfer possible. A must own release for any serious cinephile.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – Follow me on Twitter