Day of the Outlaw (1959)
Cattle-rancher Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) is about to draw against small-time farmer Hal Crane in an almost deserted saloon deep in the hills of Wyoming….The saloon door bursts open and in struts ex-US army officer, Captain Jack Bruhn and his band of outlaws, saddled with gold and on the run from the US Cavalry. Bruhn has been mortally-wounded and wishes to rest in the town, holding all those present captive…..
“Day of the Outlaw” is not particularly well-regarded by film critics and has largely been relegate to the dustbin of cinematic history. A bleak and sombre movie, unable to ignite the hearts of audiences and the industry on its initial release, I think it’s high time for a re-evaluation.
Many are of the opinion that Ryan’s performance is atypically wooden and that his character lacks depth, apparently the fault of a genuinely boring script. None of these views hold much sway with me. Starrett starts off the proceedings as the cattle-ranching villain, a man intent on murdering a farmer for both his land and pretty wife; yet by the end of the movie, Starrett is the only hope for the town as they become increasingly captive to the ramshackle soldiers of fortune under Bruhn’s command. I liked the way that Starrett’s transformation from bad-guy to good-guy is not driven by Ryan’s performance – he plays it the same throughout – but by the events around him. I think that’s a nice touch and a more realistic representation of what happens in the real world.
Burl Ives is energetically commanding as Captain Bruhn, an army man whose moral code is closer to that of Starrett than to his own company of thieves and murderers. Bruhn bans his men from drinking the towns’ whisky and socialising with the towns’ women (all 4 of them) but this order is very grudgingly accepted and there is a simmering feeling of ‘mutiny’ beneath the scenes in which Bruhn’s men are together. Bruhn has also adopted one of his gang as a surrogate son and I thought that this relationship comes across really well in the film (David Nelson plays the ‘son’, Gene) with a touchingly memorable sequence near the end of the movie where Bruhn makes sure that Gene will survive the tortuous game of cat-and-mouse alive.
As the film goes on, Bruhn’s and Starrett’s objectives align as both men wish to avert a night of raping, looting and murder. I liked the plot evolution in this movie and the idea of Starrett and Bruhn riding off into the snow-capped mountains – to meet their almost certain death – as a way to avoid a massacre of the townspeople was quite unique. It’s comparably rare in films that our two main protagonists (and enemies) join forces to save the lives of innocents. This situation generates some degree of suspense in the latter part of the movie as the audience wonders whether Bruhn will live long enough for the plan to work before they get caught-out by the more unsavoury characters in his gang….
The soundtrack is strong and almost resembles a funeral march; very apt given that much of the movie is about people waiting to die….
I have said all the above without mentioning the camerawork set against the backdrop of the extreme Wyoming winter. I mean, the look of the movie is great and we get some special shots of men and horses driving through walls of snow – and it looks damn hard.
I reckon that a major reason for this film falling from view is because it takes itself so seriously. There are no comic characters and there is no light-hearted relief; the subject matter is rich and the director ensures that we take the movie for what it is – a fine bit of serious entertainment.
hotdog rating: 8.5/10