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Mostly ignored by film critics during his lifetime, ace director Andre De Toth was too often passed off as a footnote, as the guy who directed the 3D movie House of Wax, despite having only one eye. De Toth earned plenty of fans though his films noir (Pitfall, Crime Wave) and action movies (Play Dirty, Springfield Rifle). Day of the Outlaw was made in 1959, when B&W theatrical westerns were riding into the sunset. Big-star color westerns would remain popular through the sixties but the glut of TV cowboys and gunslingers made it much harder for smaller-scale fare.
Day of the Outlaw's interiors look no better than many another late-50s United Artists western, but the exteriors lift the entire picture into another level of realism. The story takes place in a tiny town in a high valley in the dead of winter. A snowstorm is coming on and the harsh, unforgiving weather becomes a major story factor.
Not that many westerns have major scenes in the snow. Raoul Walsh's The Tall Men has an opening in the snow and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller has a memorable snowbound conclusion, but the only other completely snowed-in titles that come to mind are William Wellman's Track of the Cat and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence. Just moving around is difficult, and the usual six-gun chases are slowed to a crawl when both pursuer and pursued are faced with impassable mountain trails. The West is celebrated as a place where escape is always a possibility -- to the East, to Mexico, even to Bolivia. Day of the Outlaw contrasts man's conflicts against the might of nature. The differences of cattlemen and ranchers, outlaws and citizens come to naught when faced with the freezing cold. Andre De Toth has made an existential western, by default -- his movie hasn't a hint of artsy pretension.
Although Day of the Outlaw can't quite escape its budget-conscious UA origins, it's an unusually uncompromising show for its year. The siege of the snowbound town is unrelentingly grim, and free of most of the bush-league moralizing that had crept into the genre ... stories about misunderstood gunfighters without a cause, and lawmen that search their souls only to conclude that gunplay is the fastest route to justice. 1 Screenwriter Philip Yordan's westerners act out their convictions and prejudices without claiming any higher purpose than survival in a lawless land. Blaise Starrett is convinced that his personal survival means driving out Hal Crane. Ex-army officer Jack Bruhn commands respect, knowing full well that he's crossed over into complete brigandry. His outlaws give little thought to anything beyond their next bottle, or woman. The townspeople just want trouble to go away, and expect men like Blaise to do their fighting for them.
Day of the Outlaw's characters are cleanly drawn, despite not being particularly original. Robert Ryan's Starrett is interesting because he's neither a noble hero nor a craven bad guy; Ryan is always good when expressing ambivalence. He comes on like the heavy, and even when he's doing the right thing, he never wears a halo. Burl Ives' Jack Bruhn apparently could find no other way to command men except as an outlaw. He's a strangely modulated villain, one that insists on keeping his bargains. Weirdly, Bruhn colludes with Blaise to withhold vital information from his gang, not even bothering to show his hidden streak of integrity.
Alan Marshal's Hal isn't very interesting but Tina Louise is fine as the woman caught between two stubborn men. Although Ms. Louise's image is put to use as advertising poster bait, her re-teaming with Robert Ryan (after the previous year's God's Little Acre) sets her up in a straight acting role. When the scurvy bandits threaten the town's womenfolk, Louise doesn't figure in any salacious scenes. Venetia Stevenson (The City of the Dead) is a little less comfortable as the town's 'sweet young thing' who takes a shine to confused young bandit David Nelson. In the same year that Ricky Nelson made a splash in Rio Bravo brother David's efforts here received little attention. As it turned out, neither became real film stars. Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert and Betsy Jones-Moreland appear in smaller parts.
There's something about shooting in snow that communicates harsh reality. The rugged look of the snow scenes convinces us that the actors are darn cold -- it's not like a desert western where we imagine a star's assistant waiting just out of camera range with an umbrella and cold lemonade. The impact of the outdoor footage is so strong that we forgive some exteriors that were obviously filmed on a sound stage. The picture's bleak ending has some really delicious twists, as when a bad guy discovers he cannot fire his Winchester with frostbitten fingers that won't move. The only question we have is where Robert Ryan spent the night, and somehow didn't freeze to death.
Philip Yordan is credited only as screenwriter but the film was made by Security Pictures, a company closely identified with the prolific film wheeler-dealer. Yordan would soon be in Spain assisting Samuel Bronston on his colossal epic films, and it looks like he took editor Robert Lawrence with him. Lawrence jumped immediately from small films to blockbusters like Spartacus and El Cid, thanks to his association with Yordan and director Anthony Mann.
MGM/Fox's DVD of Day of the Outlaw looks great in an enhanced transfer properly matted to widescreen proportions. Old TV prints marooned the action in the center of the frame. Cameraman Russell Harlans interiors are rather flat lit, but the exteriors compensate. For the most part the image is clean and sharp. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Day of the Outlaw rates:
1. UA's epic western of the previous year, The Big Country earned Burl Ives a supporting Oscar but ends up as an unusually limp pacifist screed from Jessamyn West, a kind of Friendly Persuasion on the range that undercuts its every honest thrill with an disapproving attitude.
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