Director: André De Toth
Screenplay: Philip Yordan
Based on a Novel by: Lee E. Wells
Starring: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshal, David Nelson
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
2015 has been good for my western addiction/education with my two favourite home entertainment labels, Eureka and Arrow, releasing a decent handful of classic and cult oaters over the year. I reviewed Eureka's Blu-Ray of the wonderful Shane only yesterday and I'm straight back with a look at André De Toth's 1959 film, Day of the Outlaw.
On paper the early plot details sound fairly similar to Shane. Robert Ryan plays Blaise Starrett (the surname is even the same as the central family in George Stevens' film) who is a cowboy that wants to graze his herd on land being fenced off by local farmers. So far, so Shane. However, we soon learn that Blaise's anger for one farmer in particular, Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), isn't just down to land. He's in love with Hal's wife Helen (Tina Louise) and wants to use the farming dispute as an excuse to kill him and have his wife and his land.
It's this heartlessness from the man who appears to be the central character that quickly makes you realise we're not in the realm of Shane's mysterious guardian angel territory anymore. Then, just as Blaise and Hal's dispute looks to be coming to a swift, violent conclusion, Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his band of outlaws bursts into the film. They crash through the door just as the cowboy and farmers are about to draw. This totally flips things on their head.
Blaise and Hal put their differences aside as the residents of the remote town (or village) are forced to accommodate the bunch of criminals for at least one night whilst they rest before carrying on their escape from the cavalry. The unruly gang members have been travelling for a while and are desperate to enjoy a night of drinking and ravaging the female townsfolk, but Bruhn, being a former military captain, will have none of it. He may be a thief, but he has honour and dignity. He has a firm grip on the band too and orders them to keep away from the booze and the women. This puts the townsfolk a little more at ease until they realise that Bruhn is badly injured and may not make it through the night. So this puts their fate on a knife edge.
That synopsis is quite long by my standards, but actually the plot is very quickly set up in the film and, for the most part, it's a sparse study in tension. This sparseness is accentuated through the cold, snow-covered mountain setting, which further disassociates the film from the usual sun-beaten arid landscapes of the classic westerns. The film is oppressively stark at times and its final act is particularly bleak and brutal as Blaise takes the outlaws on a suicidal trek over the mountain in a bid to get them away from the town.
This, added to some dark and uncompromising acts (or potential acts for the most part) make for a mean spin on the western myth. The film stands alongside The Wild Bunch and its ilk as a revisionist western, signalling the death of the old traditions.
De Toth handles things expertly. Tension is constantly being cranked, right up to the nail-biting finale where the elements actually prove to be the weapon of choice, rather than the pistol. Some interesting camera techniques are used in key scenes too to help achieve this intensity. During the early stand-off between Blaise and Hal for instance, the rolling of a bottle along the bar is used as a device to count down towards the draw and the camera tracks the bottle towards the door just in time for Bruhn and his gang to smash through it.
A dance provides a surprising set-up for one of the most tense and uncomfortable scenes though. Bruhn is convinced by his men to let them have a dance with the women of the town. As the 'festivities' go on, things look to be getting out of hand. De Toth uses some long and dizzying beyond 360 degree pans around the room, following one of the women as she's passed around the rogues who are practically drooling over here. It's a remarkable and terrifying scene.
It's not a perfect film though. The opening few minutes are a little too talky and I found I missed a few bits of information from this exposition whilst I tried to make notes. I found some of the performances a bit hit and miss too. Ryan and Ives are great, but I found Louise a little hammy and some of the townsfolk could have been better too.
So it's a tad rough around the edges, giving it a bit of a B-movie feel at times when compared to something like Shane. However, as a hard-edged, cold and brutal genre movie, it's quite exceptional, so I can easily recommend it to those of the right mindset. Fingers crossed Eureka and Arrow keep on mining the western genre for more gems like these.
Day of the Outlaw is out on 7th December on Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is great as usual for the label.
There are a couple of special features included. There's an optional music and effects track and a video appreciation by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. The latter is an excellent piece, with the director analysing the film that he openly has a great love for.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too. Although not one of the longer booklets they've put together, it makes for good reading largely through giving an insight into the larger than life character of De Toth.