"My tongue's salt dry for whiskey. We took that Army pay wagon. We fought hard...shot our way out. For what? To sit around on our butts like this was Sunday school?"
"Captain, you ain't lettin' nature take its course. Men don't act like you make us act here. We've got this town under our thumb, but we ain't gettin' no pleasure out of it."
"Two more days like this is going to seem like two more years. Maybe not even you can keep us in line, Bruhn."
"I gave my word to the people of this town."
"Why? To make you look big and us little?"
"Maybe you better answer, Bruhn."
"You'll drink, fool around, then kill each other over these women. I'm a-ridin' out of here at daybreak with six men."
To whatever extent this stark, punishingly cold stretch of land in Wyoming has been tamed, it's owed in large part to the sweat and suffering of cattleman Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan). And where has it gotten him? Farmers – soft men, in his estimation – like Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) have seized it all from him. They've claimed Bitters for themselves...all of a day or two away from enveloping it in barb wire. More painful still, Crane has taken the woman he loved (Tina Louise). There will be a reckoning, and no doubt remains which of the two men will walk away victorious and which will have his blood spilling out onto the frozen earth below. Helen even offers herself to Blaise, trading her dignity if only he'll spare her husband's life.
A picture of what follows is, perhaps, forming in the minds of those who haven't yet experienced Andre De Toth's Day of the Outlaw. And indeed, the foundation for a compelling Western has been established: cattleman versus farmer, a love triangle from which Helen cannot extricate herself, and an effectively villainous protagonist in Blaise certain to recognize how dark a path he's walking. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, enters Captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his men.
The question of whether it's farmer or rancher who holds claim to this land then becomes moot. This town, at least for a time, belongs to Bruhn. They've stolen a fortune in gold. Their headstart on the cavalry pursuing them is evaporating, yet they're still in need of time to regroup. Though some may understandably misinterpret the film's title as representing the lawless revelry to be indulged by Bruhn's gang, that proves not at all to be the case. Worlds removed from a moustache-twirling black hat, the Captain has no interest in bloodshed. His men are forbidden to drink, and he keeps this desperate, lecherous lot at arm's length from the town's women. All that matters now is survival – no small feat, given the injuries that Bruhn has suffered, and the powder keg of his long-deprived men inches away from the liquor and sex they lust after so.
Day of the Outlaw is not a story pitting the righteous against the wicked, nor is it a tale of redemption, exactly. The film's true nemesis is inevitability. The inevitability that an enraged Blaise will gun down this outmatched farmer. The inevitability that Bruhn's wounds will soon claim him. The inevitability that his men will ravage this town and eventually slaughter themselves. The inevitability of the cavalry's arrival and the carnage that will doubtlessly follow. The inevitability of the blizzard that's rolling in, whether it prohibits the gang's escape or kills them in the attempt. De Toth's concept is described brilliantly in Day of the Outlaw's audio commentary. While Bruhn is ostensibly the jailer and Blaise among his prisoners, they're both imprisoned by circumstances in no small part of their own making. Much of the success of Day of the Outlaw stems from its refusal to capitulate to formula – of so many threats looming and the uncertainty which will seize hold first.
Its capacity to shock and surprise – that feeling of having no idea what awaits around the next bend – is one among a great many strengths. Andre De Toth was hardly a stranger to film noir, and Day of the Outlaw owes no small debt to that cinematic style, from its moral ambiguity to an inescapable bleakness. The craftsmanship is nothing short of spectacular: the desolation and biting cold of this location shoot that's readily felt, the stunning cinematography by celebrated D.P. Russell Harlan, and its many lengthy takes and extended tracking shots. When someone falls to gunfire, it's hardly a thrilling shootout at high noon on a muddy street. It's haunting...devastating to watch. When Bruhn's men indulge themselves as best they can in a bar room dance, their inhumanity is horrifying to witness, without falling back on the crutches of blood or bullets. Day of the Outlaw is expertly cast, from Robert Ryan's combustibly seething fury to the sympathy evoked by Burl Ives' near-gentleman villain trying to maintain something close enough to order. And as beautiful as the film is visually, it's graced with extraordinary writing to match:
"You've got a big mouth, farmer. You've got big eyes too. You came here a year ago in your broken-down wagon looking for a choice spot to settle, and you think you found it. But you never stopped to think what made it such a good place. When Dan and I came here, Bitters was a nesting place for every thief and killer in the territory. A man's life wasn't worth the cost of a bullet. No woman was safe in the streets, let alone in a lonely farmhouse! It took more than a big mouth to get rid of the lice who infested every bend in the road you ride so safely on. I'm not saying Dan and I did it alone, but we did more than our share. We hunted them down in the freezing cold while you sat back in the East hugging your pot-bellied stoves! Nobody thanked us. Nobody paid us. We did it because we felt we belonged. We'd earned the right to belong! And all you've done is ride in here and put down your stinking roots! And now you tell us that you belong and we don't! Mr. Crane, you said you'd fight to keep what you want. Well, I've been doing that for twenty years, and I intend to keep on doing it! And no pig-bellied farmer's going to stop me!"
As many Westerns as Kino Lorber Studio Classics has brought to Blu-ray over the past five years, the unique, endlessly surprising, and in every way exceptional Day of the Outlaw is undoubtedly among the most essential in their library. More than deserving of a place in any collection, Day of the Outlaw comes very Highly Recommended.
I don't have the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release from a few years back handy to do a direct comparison, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that this disc shares the same source. At least, I'm not left with the sense that Day of the Outlaw has been newly remastered. The image, while respectably detailed and nicely defined, is on the soft side. Grain isn't as fine as I'd expect from a more recent scan. Jeremy Arnold notes in his commentary that Day of the Outlaw was filmed in black and white because De Toth "wanted a harsh contrast", and, as striking as its cinematography so often is, that's not how I'd describe the snow-blanketed exteriors:
Still, as welcomed as a 4K remaster from the original camera negative would've been, there's nothing the least bit disappointing about what Kino Lorber Studio Classics has delivered here. That the snow isn't gleamingly white or the image sharp to a razor's edge in no way detracts from the overall experience. There is no wear or damage of any consequence, nor could I spot any distracting artifacting at any point throughout the film. While capturing screenshots for this review, a faint glow became visible around areas of higher contrast, but this was not noticeable at a reasonable viewing distance in my home theater. While it's not the five-star presentation I'm always hoping to see, I very much remain pleased with this Blu-ray release of Day of the Outlaw, and it comes recommended without reservation.
Day of the Outlaw is lightly letterboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film and its modest selection of extras arrive on a single-layer Blu-ray disc.
Most immediately noticeable about this 16-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is the disparity between the roar of the MGM lion and the film that follows. Day of the Outlaw's dialogue and score are as low as that leonine roar is thunderous, requiring some rapid adjustment with the volume on my AVR to compensate:
There's very little other cause for concern after addressing the volume. Every line is readily discerned throughout, with the dialogue not marred by excessive sibilance or clipping. There is no background noise to combat, nor are there any pops, clicks, or dropouts to be found. There are some moments early on that are less adeptly recorded, with the interiors occasionally sounding more cavernous than other sequences set in the same location:
...but this is rare and not an issue specific to this Blu-ray release besides. Volume aside, Day of the Outlaw's lossless soundtrack is very much in line with my expectations. Also included are an audio commentary and a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
The Final Word
I often find comfort in the familiarity of Westerns that adhere to formula. Day of the Outlaw is anything but. Bleak, complex, unpredictable, and masterfully crafted, Andre De Toth's Western noir is an essential discovery for those not yet acquainted and endlessly rewarding to revisit for those that are. Highly Recommended.