Review: Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Snow scene in Day of the Outlaw

Stark says: “You won’t find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming.

Seen The Revenant? No? Well, if you’re pushed for time but harbouring a hankering for a hardscrabble, snow-choked Western, then go for Day of the Outlaw instead. If nothing else, it’ll save you an hour and a half, which you can spend doing… other things. Like smoking meat or practising macramé.

I will admit, there’s less grunting than there is in The Revenant, and less bear. Directed by Hungarian-born Andre de Toth – of House of Wax fame – what’s on offer here is a psychological, powder-keg of a Western that feels less like a yee-haw-thankee-ma’am-cowboy-movie and more like a taut, 1930s noir thriller.

The Good

Like The Revenant, this film is set against the hostile, brutal backdrop of the mountains in winter. Most of the action takes place in the tiny, isolated, Wyoming community of Bitters, home to less than twenty people, who scratch out a living where “the trail ends”. Not a cactus or sun-bleached skull in sight. (In fact, there’s a whole subgenre of icy Westerns called “Northerns” but we won’t go into that now…)

Filmed on location in Oregon during the winter of 1958, the bleak, eerily beautiful and oppressive mountain landscape isn’t only a vehicle for some accomplished cinematography. Much like the classic frontier desert, it serves a narrative purpose by trapping the inhabitants in their environment. With only one road out of town, and death on every other side, we’re reminded of the lengths to which some people will go in their search for freedom.

Yes, sure, Russell Harlan’s cinematography isn’t quite as jaw-dropping or epic in scale at that of Emmanuel Lubezki’s in The Revenant, there are still some impressive scenes. In fact, both films use the same shot of a silent mountaintop, floating in a sea of cloud.

In comparison to the savage grandeur of the landscape, the town of Bitters is small, rough and poor: no Ol’ West glamour here. Rickety planks act as sidewalks over the ice and the shelves in the bar and general store are almost empty, adding to the film’s run-down, seedy, noir tone. The people, too, seem embroiled in bare-boned conflicts. The film opens with the (classically named) Blaise Starrett, riding angrily into town to confront farmer Hal Crane about a barbed wire fence. Blaise is a hard man, but even his foreman points out that: “a wire fence is a poor excuse to make a widow out of Crane’s wife.”

Robert Ryan as Blaise in Day of the Outlaw
Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett

We soon learn that Farmer Crane is a mild-mannered man, and that Blaise’s real beef lies in the fact that he and Hal’s wife Helen once had a bit of a thing going. So, from the start, our notion of the good “white hat” and the vengeful “black hat” are skewed. Blaise is tough-talking and spoiling for a fight, but a searing speech to the townspeople reveals the true reasons behind his behaviour:

“It took more than a big mouth to get rid of the lice who infested every bend of the road you ride so safely on… We hunted them down in the freezing cold while you sat back in the East hugging your pot-bellied stove. Nobody thanked us. Nobody paid us. We did it because we felt we belonged. And all you’ve done is ride in here and put down your stinking boots.”

Needless to say, writer Philip Yordan (who also wrote Johnny Guitar) considered this one of his best scripts. Blaise sees himself as the town’s law, and – in the absence of any “lice” to deal with – we get the impression he’s laying claim to the land in the only way he knows, even though the time for such behaviour is long past.

In this sense, Day of the Outlaw sits on the cusp of the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and 70s, while at the same time clinging to the conventions of the classic, Hollywood Westerns of the previous decade. The characters range from dime novel stereotypes, to interesting depictions of cruel, indecisive, moody, guilt-ridden people, where even the “heroes” are grimly resigned rather than courageous.

The character of Captain Bruhn – played by a marvellous Burl Ives – and his gang of thugs are a case in point. Just as Blaise and Crane are going to have it out over the fence, Bruhn crashes into town, wounded and pursued by the law after robbing a bank. A cavalry officer turned outlaw, Bruhn is at once commanding and charismatic, instantly plucking control of the town from Blaise’s hands. But when he and his men become trapped in Bitters by a snow-storm, that control is tested. The outlaws grow bored and strain at their leashes, keen for some “fun” with the townspeople. “They could swallow this town whole and nobody would be alive to tell the tale,” Bruhn threatens. His order of “No women, no whiskey, no gunning” keeps them in check, but barely.

Burl Ives in day of the Outlaw
Burl Ives as Captain Bruhn

Day of the Outlaw isn’t shy about revealing the West for the bleak, morally thorny place it was. In one memorable scene, Bruhn – dying and losing control of his men – allows them to hold a “dance” with the women of the town, in an attempt to diffuse some of the rapidly boiling tension. The subsequent scene is uncomfortable viewing; the outlaws manhandle the women under the pretext of “dancing”, whilst an interminable, jaunty saloon melody echoes around the storm-lashed town. At the start of the scene, Bruhn is seen sitting at the top of the stairs, watching through the banisters like a child; a clear indication of his failing grip on the situation.

In fact, much of the film’s drama comes Bruhn’s character development; as his control of his men begins to weaken, he comes to consider the consequences of his actions. The bullet-wound in his chest becomes a timebomb, and every cough ratchets up the tension, building to what we know will be a brutal showdown.

The Bad

This film hedges around being something truly remarkable. It’s hard to put a finger on what holds it back, but I suspect some of it is to do with the acting. Tina Louise, as Helen Crane, strays dangerously close to melodrama and while Robert Ryan gives a respectable turn as Blaise, compared to Ives’s Bruhn, he falls a bit flat. And, like I said before, several of the characters are straight-up cardboard cutouts. Ernine – the store owner’s daughter – mostly just stands around looking innocent, whilst Gene, the youngest member of Bruhn’s crew, mostly just stands around looking honourable. Bruhn’s outlaws too contain the same-old-same-old mix: a grizzled guy, a tough guy, a half-Cheyenne guy, a creepy guy who laughs all the time… A couple of them, Tex and Pace, give some attention-grabbing performances, but the rest get lost in a wave of general outlaw-ness.

Day of the Outlaw 1959

The ending, after a tense, exhausting trek through inhospitable mountains, is admirably futile and anti-climactic; however, call me newfangled but I would have liked to have seen a little more Iñárritu-style grime. Despite savage beatings, inclement weather and a near-death experience in the snow, Blaise somehow looks fresh as a daisy all the way through the film.

The Ugly

Some of the supporting cast are real gems. Donald Elson as Vic the Store Owner is cheerfully wooden, but I have to forgive him because he has a great voice. Dabs Greer gives a wonderful turn as the nervy, out-of-his-depth horse doctor who operates on Bruhn, while Nehemiah Persoff (who was the voice of Papa Mousekewitz in An American Tale!) is brilliantly understated as Blaise’s drunk foreman, Dan. Shot of a shoestring of $400,000, the film does show its budgetary constraints in places. Overall, though, de Toth made the lack of money work in his favour, creating some unbearably tense interior scenes reminiscent of Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

For a film that simply packed up and went back to Hollywood when it ran out of money, Day of the Outlaw remains not only eminently watchable, but one of the most interesting and unusual Westerns of the 1950s. Give it a shot, pard.

This review was first published by Pornokitsch during my tenure there as creature of the night / Western Reviewer.

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