How does Hollywood sell a gritty, realistic western? With a sexy shot of star Tina Louise! Viewers will be surprised: this fine western is a showcase for the elemental ruthlessness we associate with director André de Toth — its snowbound setting is so convincing, we can almost feel the cold. Slick writer Philip Yordan sets up an impossible conflict as a blizzard moves in on a tiny town… Robert Ryan must sort out his feelings for the town beauty Tina Louise as he negotiates with the he-boss of the killer crooks, Burl Ives. Ryan has no choice but to volunteer for a suicide journey — but nature has the last word.
Day of the Outlaw
KL Studio Classics
1959 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date August 27, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshal, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Nehemiah Persoff, Jack Lambert, Frank DeKova, Lance Fuller, Elisha Cook Jr., Dabbs Greer, Betsy Jones-Moreland.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Film Editor: Robert Lawrence
Original Music: Alexander Courage
Written by Philip Yordan from a book by Lee E. Wells
Produced by Sidney Harmon
Directed by André de Toth
Ace director André is finally getting his due respect, critically speaking. Mostly ignored during his lifetime, de Toth was too often passed off as a footnote, as the guy who directed the 3-D movie House of Wax despite having only one eye. Thanks to disc availability, De Toth has earned plenty of fans though his superior films noir (Pitfall, Crime Wave) and action movies (Play Dirty, Springfield Rifle, Ramrod). 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 cowboys and gunslingers on TV made distribution tougher for smaller-scale fare. A show needed a hook, a gimmick, something to make it stand out.
Day of the Outlaw 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 the dominant story factor. The interiors are no different than many another late-’50s United Artists western, but the raw cold of the mountain exteriors raises the picture to a higher level of realism.
As is typical for a de Toth movie, even the most clear-cut human transactions are painful — this isn’t a western with simple solutions. When a Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do, what has to be done is invariably unpleasant and unfair. A community under siege by outside forces is unable to band together. The strongest among them must take responsibility simply because he’s the only one who can.
Rancher Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) comes to town with his top kick Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) looking for trouble. He’s aiming to incite a shootout with farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), a new resident who has imported a large quantity of barbed wire. Having spent twenty years fighting off renegades to make the valley a safe place, Blaise is unwilling to see his livelihood threatened by fences. Hal’s wife Helen (Tina Louise) was Blaise’s former lover; she tries but cannot persuade him to spare her husband. The dispute is interrupted — and swept aside — by the arrival of the Bruhn gang, a band of vicious outlaws trying to outrun the military. Leader Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) has been wounded in a shoot-out; with Blaise’s assistance the local veterinarian (Dabbs Greer) is pressured to remove a bullet from the strong but exhausted outlaw. Blaise is eager for the operation to be a success, because only Bruhn’s stern authority keeps his men Tex, Denver and pace (Jack Lambert, Frank DeKova & Lance Fuller) from rampant rape and murder. Meanwhile, the gang’s youngest member Gene (David Nelson) develops an affection for local girl Ernine (Venetia Stevenson). Eager to get the gang on its way before bloodshed erupts, Blaise volunteers to lead them through a secret mountain pass … knowing that Bruhn will kill him when he’s no longer needed.
Not that many westerns have major scenes in the snow. Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men opens in snow country 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. Any film shot in exteriors requires crews and actors to stand around exposed to the elements for hours at a time, and people who must work in snow conditions know how intolerable it can be. 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. Like Track of the Cat, de Toth’s film has a strong Jack London element, contrasting man’s conflicts against the unyielding might of nature. The differences of cattlemen and ranchers, outlaws and citizens come to naught when faced with the freezing cold. This is an existential western by default — and it 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 Philip Yordan’s screenplay is free of the bush-league moralizing that had crept into the genre during the ‘adult’ ’50s. We see no misunderstood gunfighters without a cause, and no lawman searches his soul only to conclude that gunplay is the fastest route to justice. Presumably because snow doesn’t sell movie tickets, Security Pictures banked their publicity on revealing art of Tina Louise holding a six-gun. Like a number of westerns from 1959 and ’60, the key art stresses a sensational rape theme.
The movie itself has no lack of narrative integrity. Philip Yordan’s westerners act out their convictions and prejudices without claiming any higher purpose than subsisting in a lawless land. Blaise Starrett is convinced that his personal survival means driving out Hal Crane. Ex-army officer Jack Bruhn tries to command respect and obedience, but knows too 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.
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 initially comes on like the heavy, and never wears a halo even when doing the right thing. Burl Ives’ Jack Bruhn is a melancholy man who needs to give orders, an ex-officer who 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. Bruhn never flaunts his streak of integrity; his gang would turn on him if they guessed he was putting anybody else’s interests first.
Bruhn’s bad guys openly announce their intention to ‘borrow’ the town’s women, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, not even Jack Bruhn. De Toth doesn’t get literal as did Anthony Mann, having Jack Lord and Robert J. Wilke entertain themselves by forcing Julie London to strip. But Bruhn’s outlaw scum seem even less controllable — leering Lance Fuller, treacherous Jack Lambert, stupid Frank DeKova — as they dance with the girls and paw them in the corners. In an unusual character development, Starrett and Bruhn find themselves collaborating to keep the bandits from running amok.
This de-focusing of the standard good vs. evil equation compares favorably to The Big Country, United Artists’ epic western of the previous year. As written by Jessamyn West, it tries too hard to be a pacifist Friendly Persuasion on the range. Burl Ives won a supporting Oscar with a well-written character, but his Jack Bruhn in Outlaw is much more interesting. The forced dance may indeed turn into a mass rape, and even Bruhn might not be able to stop it. The movie doesn’t leaven this darkness with humor, or steer the movie in a different direction. As usual, André de Toth bears down on the unpleasant realities that come out of the material.
Alan Marshal’s Hal Crane isn’t particularly interesting, but Tina Louise is fine as the woman caught between two stubborn men. Although her image is used as advertising poster bait, Ms. Louise doesn’t figure in any salacious scenes. Her re-teaming with Robert Ryan (after the previous year’s God’s Little Acre) sets her up in a straight acting role. Tina Louise’s best pictures have all come out on Blu-ray in the last few years, but I know of no disc that has obtained an interview or commentary from the still-active performer.
Among the women threatened with rape is the unattached teenager Ernine (Venetia Stevenson of The City of the Dead). Her response is to take a shine to David Nelson’s confused young bandit, who seems thoughtful and reasonable. In the same year that his brother Ricky made a splash in Rio Bravo, David’s efforts here received little attention. As it turned out, neither Nelson fils became a real film star. Favorites Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert, Elisha Cook 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 a parasol and cold lemonade. Snowbound locations have been known to give producers ulcers — how many times have we read about a production expecting snow, that arrived on location to encounter ‘the warmest winter in fifty years.’ Snow continuity is also scary — overnight, your beautiful winter town might lose half of its white snow blanket and just look soggy and miserable. If the thermometer takes a steep dive, you might run into equipment problems.
But the realism of real snow conditions can pay off, as seen in Day of the Outlaw. The impact of the outdoor footage is so strong that we forgive some exteriors that were obviously filmed on a sound stage. The bleak finale has some really delicious twists, as when a bad guy discovers that even minor frostbite can prevent one from functioning. The only question we ask is where Robert Ryan spent the night, so as not to freeze to death.
Philip Yordan is credited only as screenwriter but the company Security Pictures was 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 as if he took ace 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. Co-producer Sidney Harmon must have been a principal participant in Security Pictures, as his credit appears on The Wild Party (1956), The Big Combo, God’s Little Acre, and Men in War.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Day of the Outlaw looks just fine; since no new transfer is called out I’m assuming that what’s on view is an HD rendering of the same good scan used in MGM’s 2008 DVD. The widescreen scan shows off the impressively bleak winter locations in Arizona and Oregon. De Toth’s filming company either had incredible luck with the weather, or they shifted scenes to fit the weather they were given. Numerous dramatic scenes also take place outdoors in the freezing cold; if all of the dialogue was replaced in post, the dubbing work is excellent. Whether the sky is clear, clouded up, or darkened with freezing fog, the conditions are always appropriate to the scene on view. I’ve seen credible ‘deep snow’ movies, but not one with so many dramatic scenes out in the elements, that worked as well as this does.
The film’s trailer is included, but the big draw will be the fact-filled commentary provided by film writer Jeremy Arnold, an expert who knows his way around film history and colorful auteur directors like Budd Boetticher and André de Toth. Jeremy sets to analyzing the film in depth from scene one forward, noting the extended long-take wide shots, the noir-like bleakness and character isolation, and de Toth’s total command of his visuals. Arnold tells us the story of Robert Ryan’s involvement with Security Pictures, through producer Harmon. The only flaw I found was a mis-identification of a pair of actresses. Betsy Jones-Moreland, easily recognizable as Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth, is the townswoman forced to dance along with Tina Louise and Venetia Stevenson. Helen Westcott doesn’t dance, and instead is seen cooking in the back room. Jeremy’s attention to detail is impressive — he’s made contact with a number of the cast members, a couple of them even in their late 90s, and he has new background stories for several interesting aspects of the film.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Day of the Outlaw
Supplements: Commentary by author Jeremy Arnold, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson