I like westerns, I like movies which could be described as chamber pieces, and I like snowy backdrops. Day of the Outlaw (1959), directed by Andre de Toth, checks all these boxes. It’s one of those films genre fans will enthuse about yet remains criminally underrated by others. It’s also a film where there’s not a huge amount of action; there is, however, a kind of relentless tension and a whole lot going on just below the surface. In short, the film is a sleeper, a tight and atmospheric classic just waiting to be discovered.
I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of watching movies is to be found in the deceptively simple story, those tales which initially appear to be straightforward or predictable yet gradually develop into something much more complex and satisfying. Day of the Outlaw is a fine example of a work where layers of depth emerge bit by bit and draw you in before you’ve realized it. It opens in a wintry Wyoming town as two men, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff), ride in and bemoan the stringing of barbed wire and the consequent threat to the open range. Starrett’s blood is up and he vows a showdown with the homesteader responsible. The scene therefore is set for the kind of range war drama that’s been seen countless times. But this is a mere introduction, an opportunity to draw attention to the implacable and tough character of the lead. When it then becomes apparent that Starrett is in love with and covets the beautiful wife (Tine Louise) of his chief rival, the plot moves to another level. And still we’re only dancing around the periphery, for what really matters here is the journey – both literal and figurative – which Starrett (among others) will be forced to embark upon. In a deft piece of filmmaking sleight of hand the entire emphasis is moved away from that which the build-up has led us to expect. Just as we’re about to witness the duel between Starrett and his foe a bunch of newcomers arrive and take us off in a completely different direction. Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a Quantrill-like figure, a soldier with a tarnished reputation now reduced to leading a band of amoral cutthroats. Bruhn and his men are loaded down with stolen gold, but he’s got a bullet lodged inside him and the army hot on his heels. The enforced stopover in the snowbound town represents a trial of sorts for the bewildered and helpless residents, but it also holds out a kind of hope for two lost souls – Starrett and Bruhn. Both men find themselves in opposition and through that also find a way to regain a little of the humanity that years of hard living have almost stripped away.
Redemption once again; Starrett and Bruhn have lost something along the way, their hearts have been hardened by the brutality of frontier life, and their salvation will be a by-product of their enmity. As far as I’m concerned, this is what drives the film along and gives it its power. I feel all the other plot devices are simply that, accoutrements put in place to facilitate the drama that forms the heart of the story. It’s the chance meeting of Bruhn and Starrett, at a key moment for both, which gives them pause and either forces or allows them (take your pick here) to alter the course of their respective destinies. The two characters wield a significant degree of influence over those around them and this is what first draws them into an uneasy mutual alliance. However, I believe that the real, if initially unacknowledged, motive comes from the fact that each recognizes something of himself in the other. The effect appears more profound in the case of Starrett, but it’s surely present in Bruhn too, and throws out a spiritual lifeline of sorts.
Day of the Outlaw is surely Andre de Toth’s best film, a well-paced exercise in mounting and sustained tension, aided by Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Lee E Wells’ novel. By having so much of the action confined to the saloon the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and suspense is multiplied. The impromptu dance, hastily organized to placate Bruhn’s increasingly restless men, perfectly conveys the threat and menace posed by the gang. Even when events later take us out into the wilderness of the snow-choked mountain pass that feeling of being locked into an inescapable situation is actually heightened rather than dissipated. A good deal of credit also has to go to cinematographer Russell Harlan here; his shooting of the frozen and forbidding landscape is chilling in every way. When you add in Alexander Courage’s spare, doom-laden score all the ingredients are in place for a memorable interlude in the icy wastes.
The cast is both deep and distinguished (Persoff, Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Frank DeKova, Dabbs Greer, Alan Marshal et al) but Ryan and Ives easily dominate proceedings. Ives in particular holds the attention whenever he’s on screen, which is entirely fitting as he’s playing a man who’s holding a gang of dangerous roughnecks in check principally through sheer force of personality. The dance segment which I referred to above is a good illustration of this, the frayed dignity of the man shining through and setting him apart from a shabby command which is beneath him in every respect. Ives also gets right into the physical and psychological guts of his character, from the harrowing operation he endures without anesthetic to the slow dawning of his impending and inevitable demise. Overall, it’s a first-rate portrayal of a complex man, and one which is wholly believable. Just as the characters feed off one another, I think the same can be said the performances of the leads. Ryan was never a slouch as an actor anyway and his playing opposite Ives ensured he stayed on top of his game. He starts out as bitter, cold and unforgiving as the country around him, delivering a blistering and scathing verbal attack on his homesteader rival. He holds onto that steely determination throughout, but slowly lets the sharp edges soften a little as he becomes aware of the path he’s been taking and where it must surely lead.
Day of the Outlaw is fairly widely available on DVD now. I have the US release from MGM which presents the film quite nicely in its correct widescreen ratio. However, the film comes with absolutely no extra features, and I reckon it’s more than deserving of some. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have the chance to chat about the movies I love with those who share my passion. Over time though, I’ve also come to realize that I was partly motivated by a wish to see a bit more critical respect afforded to certain films and genres. The western in particular has tended to be passed over as nothing more than time-passing entertainment. Now there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, a movie which doesn’t do so is failing straight out of the gate after all. Still, the underestimation of the western as an art form and as a vehicle for the intelligent examination of adult themes has persisted. A film like Day of the Outlaw highlights this critical neglect. I’d like to think that appreciation of the film has grown somewhat over time though, and I’d encourage anyone keen on polished and smart filmmaking to seek it out.