Filmed in Central Oregon on the eve of winter, Day of The Outlaw displays gorgeously fluffy photography as the snow covers the ground. With the leading part anchored by Robert Ryan, I could not but help recall his portrayal in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), another project that made liberal use of immaculate winter exteriors. Likewise, that was only the backdrop for a tough and unfeeling world.
In this particular instance, Andre De Toth’s picture has grudges burning deep under the surface making relationships generally contentious. The story is as old as the western itself. At least its central themes make themselves known straight away. The conflict is between homesteaders and cattle ranchers embodied by two men. The aptly named town of Bitters, Wyoming has recently seen more folks settling down there. One of them named Hal Crane is intent on putting up barbed wire fencing to measure off the land for his new homestead for he and his wife.
As always, there are two sides to every field and the epically named Blaise Starrett (Ryan) is vehemently against the wire being put up because it will keep his cattle from roaming free across the land. He hasn’t minced words about what he’ll do if Crane tries it. He’s equally bitter, and he has some right to be because the way he sees it, he was one of the men who tamed the land with blood, sweat, and tears. The farmers are the ones who settled down in his shadow and now look to shoulder their way into what he has made.
However, what makes the story even more embittering is the fact that Blaise once had a thing for the other man’s wife, Helen (Tina Louise). We witness them as they meet in the general store. And at first, they give off nothing away. All that’s there is seemingly a mutual distaste. But they sit down to a nice neighborly cup of coffee alone and something else becomes evident.
She starts the conversation and makes a cold observation, “You want another man’s wife but the man has to be dead before you take her.” It’s obviously a twisted David & Bathsheba triangle. It’s about to come to its boiling point when the two men look to have it out in the local bar. Finally, a moment of violent catharsis is at hand as a lone bottle rolls down the bar to an inevitable end.
But in a bit of serendipitous (or not so serendipitous timing) they’re bloodbath gets postponed by the entrance of a band of renegades who have just ridden into town fleeing the Cavalry for some unnamed crimes. Time to put all that we assumed the film to be about on hold and do an about-face.
Their fearless leader, a former Union officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a surprisingly honorable man who vows to the people of Bitters that no harm will come to their women. He also forebays his men ffrom drinking, commanding the proprietor to get them some grub and lock away his liquor. Ives had a key role in the William Wyler western epic from the year prior The Big Country (1958). His performance here is fascinating for its nuance.
Jack Lambert is the quintessential baddy in my book right up there with Lee Van Cleef and he shows up in fine form here joined by a crew of other sneering malcontents just waiting to go crazy. You can see the pressure rising yet again. However, the fact that much of the film is confined to interiors makes the moments that we break out into the open that much more impactful and the imagery is equally rewarding.
One particular highlight is a fist fight in the muddy slush where Blaise puts up a good struggle but ultimately gets wailed on as an example to everyone else. Simultaneously the women folk fear for their well-being trying to make a break for it and a little boy is taken as a hostage. Another sequence involves a whirling dance hall gathering of forced fun. Bruhn’s men get riled up with the ladies but as their leader sees it, this is a safety valve to blow off steam, far better than more sordid alternatives.
Everyone knows this cannot go on forever and so Starrett agrees to lead them in their escape — a heroic act to remove the men from the town he helped civilize. The final ascent into the mountains to traverse a tortuous path through to the other side proves treacherous on multiple accounts. While the ending might be yet another slow burn, it does the picture justice even if a fuller, happier ending would have been appreciated by contemporary audiences. We are given enough.
The picture successfully suggests that Tina Louise is far more than Ginger in Gilligan’s Island. She certainly leaves an impression. At first, I didn’t realize David Nelson was even in the picture. Besides, his brother was the true matinee idol and yet to watch him in this oater you see the tender-hearted candor in the older Nelson. Perhaps his father was trying to make both of his sons into western heroes in Rio Bravo (1959) and Day of the Outlaw respectively. Though this outing hardly gets as much respect, it’s nearly as entertaining.
Phillip Yordan’s work on the script does a fine job of creating numerous points of contention that get placed right on top of each other, tweaking the expectations of the audience nicely. What looks like a straightforward feud over a woman soon becomes far more volatile as old enemies must join forces to protect their town against the invaders. And yet the invaders are led by a man who has a sense of conscience. So the ticking time bombs are set off with his cronies hemming and hawing, private resentment still lingering under the surface, and a gunshot wound sustained by Bruhl threatening to put him out of commission permanently.
Day of the Outlaw is a genuinely satiating effort from De Toth that brims with brooding energy supplied by the perennial outsider Robert Ryan and aided by gorgeous snowscapes and a script brought to life by an engaging ensemble. If there is any one thing that hampers the picture, it could probably be chocked down to budget restraints. The production ran out of money in the end and so De Toth wrapped up filming prematurely.
That’s what makes it even more phenomenal the movie boasts undisputed quality as a truly unheralded western classic. Just as my estimation of Robert Ryan rises after every subsequent performance displaying his at times tortured and dogged resolve, I have a newfound respect for Tina Louise and their director. This would be Andre De Toth’s final time helming a western and there’s little doubt he went out with a winner.