dir. Andre De Toth
"You won't find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming."
During the fifties, the American Western experienced a dramatic reworking. Although most associate the Western revisionist phenomenon with the works of Peckinpah and Leone in the sixties, the skewering that this genre received earlier by the likes of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher was much more startling. Although it would be disingenuous to imply that the Westerns of classic thirties, forties Hollywood hewed to a single-mindedly escapist vision, there is no denying the optimistic promise of the American West that was presented in these pictures. Throughout the fifties, however, filmmakers, more and more, used the West as a prism through which to view the injustices and moral ambiguities of modern life, while simultaneously deflating the Western myth, exposing much of it as fallacy. While still remaining entertaining, Westerns were becoming much less fun. Even the films of Ford (and to a much lesser extent, Hawks) would take a much darker tone in this period.
To the list of Western revisionists already mentioned must be added Robert Aldrich, Sam Fuller and Andre De Toth. Perhaps the least well known among this group, De Toth carved a niche for himself in the forties and fifties as a director of brutal, hyper macho noirs and westerns. He created worlds of nuanced/blunt moral ambiguity. His was a world in which the lines separating good and evil were frequently blurred. Although a director of relative fame among cineastes, he is in dire need of a re-examination. Due to the previous scarcity of De Toth films on home video, he is a director that I had not much familiarity with until recently. Each De Toth picture I've had the pleasure of seeing has been a revelation. My biggest De Toth discovery is undoubtedly Day of the Outlaw. Coming at the tail end of the fifties, this film is one of the bleakest Westerns of the era.
Day of the Outlaw contains a cornucopia of TV and character actors of the period including: David Nelson of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" fame, "Gilligan's Island"'s Tina Louise, Burl Ives, Elisha Cook Jr., and Jack Lambert. Rounding out the cast is the distinguished actor and frequent movie heavy Robert Ryan. How a film with such a cast could slip under my radar for so long is mind boggling. The prospect of seeing Ryan, Ginger, and Sam the Snowman in one movie should be reason enough for anyone to check out this picture. Fortunately, De Toth makes particularly good use of these performers in this hard hitting film.
As the film opens, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) travel through a snow covered landscape to the town of Bitters, Wyoming. Much like the rest of the film, this town's name is a delicious bit of obvious metaphor. In opening on a snowy landscape, De Toth also announces, immediately, the dramatic departure from Western norms that will mark this film. In contrast to the liberating arid wide open spaces of most Westerns, the setting here creates a feeling of suffocating claustrophobia.
De Toth wastes no time in setting up the story. During the opening credits, Blaise and Dan debate the need to murder a farmer, Hal Crane (Alan Marshal). Blaise is a rancher and former gunslinger who is riled up over the Crane's use of barb wire to protect his farm land. This constriction of previously open land has proved extremely detrimental to Blaise's cattle. In these few opening mintes De Toth has set up a classic Western them -- Civilization versus freedom. Blaise's entry into town creates a tense atmosphere, especially after it is revealed that Blaise previously had relations with Crane's wife Helen (Tina Louise).
Blaise and the townsfolk are soon stuck in a tense saloon showdown. Before any bullets have a chance to fly, however, a brutal gang of marauders/thieves and their commander Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) burst into the drinkery. Seeing his group is on the run from the cavalry, Bruhn decides hold the townsfolk hostage while making a stop in the town. Suddenly, the film has turned into a wholly different beast. The previous enemies, the townsfolk and Blaise, must now join forces in defending their town against the intruders. Although, on one level, this plot development is an extreme departure, it is in keeping with the film's central conflict of freedom versus civilization. The marauders, in their wish to run roughshod over the town and its denizens, represent a perverted distortion of the freedom that Blaise has espoused. The subsequent battle of wills forces Blaise to come to grips with his murderous intentions toward Crane and to question his beliefs. This debate over freedom versus civilization is one that continues even today.
Fortunately for the citizenry, the marauders are held in check by the dying Bruhn. Because he is racked with guilt over his complicity in a previous rampage, Bruhn has made it his duty to prevent any further bloodshed. Sure Bruhn is a thief, but he has standards. Bruhn merely sees this town as stop on his way to a destination. He wants to make his group's stay as hassle/murder free for the population as possible. In this clip, Bruhn's attempt at creating harmony between the townsfolk and the thieves comes off as a little hokey, however:
Also unnecessary is this scene in which the town's womenfolk are forced to put on a show for the marauders:
Sensing that Bruhn will soon expire, turning the city into a rampage free for all, Blaise devises to trick these men into following him down a mountain path to nowhere.
(Artist's rendition of a rampage)
In this, the final third of the film, the thieves traverse a snowy mountainous deathscape. Leading the pack with a suicidal determination, Blaise's goal is to drive all these men to their cold induced deaths. Fortunately for Blaise, their greed aids him in his quest as they soon off each other so as to take bigger portions of the shared loot. Although the film's finale contains redemption for a few characters, this final third of the film is about as cynical a statement on humanity as has been seen.
Like last week's entry, this film is a great example of economic storytelling. De Toth packs a surprising number of plot elements into this ninety minute movie. Day of the Outlaw is essentially three movies wrapped up into one awesome whole. Although constructing a movie in this manner can many times result in a jumbled mess, the story shifts here work surprisingly well. Aiding this is a unity of theme. Despite the abrupt story shifts, Day of the Outlaw remains a treatise on freedom versus civilization. Although the film eventually comes down on the side of civilization it is not before infusing the debate with a purposeful sense of ambiguity. In addition to the unity of theme, the picture has an underlying unity of style. Particularly striking is De Toth's Fordian sense of framing. Equally adept at composing snow-swept fields and crowded interiors, De Toth directs a film in which not a single shot is without purpose. A movie that could have turned into another example of an ambitious failure is instead an artistic success. How De Toth is not more well known is beyond me.