Why I Love… #136: Day of the Outlaw

Year: 1959

Director: André de Toth

Stars: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise

The Western is a vast country to travel, and I’ll freely admit I’ve only seen a small part of it. But from what I have seen I’d happily call Day of the Outlaw the meanest. Even before the central threat of the feature rears it’s head(s), the setting is tensely poised on a knife edge.

We’re in the state of Wyoming and the aptly named township of Bitters, blanketed with snow and lying in slumber at the end of the trail. Here, it is established, a rancher named Blaise Starrett holds his will over the nominal populous. Blaise wants the country open and free; a philosophy at odds with that of mild mannered local farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), who’s fixing to fence his land. Blaise opposes this and threatens to burn Hal’s wagon load of supplies; his resentment likely multiplied since Hal has married his one-time flame, Helen (Tina Louise). Hal holds his ground and the town’s saloon draws sides for a showdown. In a masterful stroke, the tension is held on the rolling of an emptied whisky bottle. When it hits the ground, the guns will fire…

This suspenseful drama is interrupted by the arrival of Captain Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his cadre of outlaws; deserters from the army being pursued down the trail. Bruhn commands the ragtag band of cutthroats and reprobates, who openly threaten to rape and pillage the lawless town of Bitters. Bruhn dominates the scene but is also frail, wounded, having been shot in the chest during his recent getaway. He puts himself at the mercy of the local vet’s nervous scalpel to get the bullet out, safe in the knowledge that his faithful bandits will avenge him should anything happen.

Robert Ryan’s stout and square-jawed Blaise is the film’s lead, but Ives’s performance as Bruhn casts an awfully large shadow. Bruhn is a fascinating mixture of elements. Ives’ size makes him an intimidating presence, but the Captain is even-tempered, even soft spoken. Nevertheless, he’s not to be trifled with. That he holds such control over his men speaks volumes. Indeed, on their arrival Bruhn orders that all the liquor be squared away, and not a one of them is to touch a drop or interfere with the town’s women without his say-so. And when his word isn’t obeyed he isn’t afraid of backing up his orders with action. The army has taught him how to be a better criminal.

Westerns afford us plenty of chances to meet rogues, but the cold brutality of Day of the Outlaw is matched in its frozen setting. Hardship is coded into the environs and seems bred into the men who inhabit these inhospitable hills. After an altercation in the thoroughfare, Bruhn orders his men to finish the job. They reach for their guns but Bruhn commands that they kill the fallen man with their fists. There’s a level of sadism at work in such a scene that sets Day of the Outlaw apart from much of its kin. It’s a film that feels openly weary and repulsed by the frailties of men. Coming near the end of Hollywood’s most fervent love affair with the West, one might see it’s extreme callousness as a comment on the genre’s tales of implicit cruelty (themselves frequently inspired by America’s true and bloody history).

The conflicting aspects of Bruhn continue to present themselves. While laying prone on the vet’s operating tale, blood pooling around his neck from the man’s work, Bruhn speaks through his surgery; his rigid face a testament to his resolve. It’s a scene that seems to be about his toughness. Unflinching masculinity as something hardened. And yet when the bullet is removed he asks tenderly for his man Gene (David Nelson) to stay with him. Setting aside the striking and unexpected homoeroticism of the moment, it goes to show the levels of complexity and humanity Day of the Outlaw affords its antagonist. Bad or worse, we’re all human.

Director André de Toth was no stranger to hard-boiled tales. Prior films like Pitfall or Crime Wave exemplified de Toth as one of Hollywood’s most arresting genre filmmakers. And while we’re a shade before auteur theory really took hold, there is a sense of continuity in the gritty toughness of his films. Where other filmmakers would perhaps look to varnish the pulpier aspects of the source material for their works, de Toth would lean into these aspects, eager for us to encounter a more craven worldview. He belongs beside the likes of Samuel Fuller or Joseph H Lewis in this regard. His work is often lean and muscular, qualities that most surely manifest in Day of the Outlaw.

The huge drifts of snow that pincer the town of Bitters help de Toth engineer a great sense of claustrophobia. For the first two thirds we never know anywhere else, furthering a ship-in-a-bottle feeling about the set-up. One never suspects that help is going to arrive from an external source; the best that the people of Bitters have to hope for is Blaise – a man we’ve been advised to treat with cautious respect at best. Even the heroes here are soured.

The film’s final third sees Blaise lead Bruhn’s men out of town through snow drifts so deep that their horses canter awkwardly, they struggle and fall, whinnying. On foot the men don’t fare better. These sequences are crisp with a sense of effort and realism, furthering the rawness of the whole. The sound of howling wind is a constant in our run to the finish, in which man is repeatedly set low by the indifference of nature. All are humbled.

There have been a great many attempts to make tough and explicit Westerns since the dismantling of the Hays Code. But for all the graphic violence that came with the likes of Sam Peckinpah or the Italian gunslingers, Day of the Outlaw still feels edgier and riskier than all of them. It’s a testament to what de Toth was able to manifest with limited means and in restricted conditions. It’s influence can be felt far and wide, from the hemmed-in bite of Tarantino’s From Dusk til Dawn screenplay to Leonardo DiCaprio’s epic struggle against the elements in The Revenant. This merciless chiller stands tall before all of them.

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