Director: Andre De Toth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When we think of postwar malaise reflected in motion pictures, film noir is the style that usually springs to mind. As most students of the form know, noir transcends genre, inflecting not only crime films, but also Westerns, women’s pictures, scifi, and other staples. However, noir certainly wasn’t the only style reflecting a pessimistic outlook. Problem films and angry teens and young men were all the rage in the 50s, and Westerns, too, gave in to exhaustion. Ride the High Country (1962), directed by WWII vet Sam Peckinpah, certainly is the epitome of end-of-the-trail films, but Day of the Outlaw, a Poverty Row film made by Security Pictures, was about as bleak as a Western with a “happy” ending could get, and I tend to think that it might have been an influence on Peckinpah’s later effort.
Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his ranch foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) are shown in the opening under the credits piloting their horses through deep snow to a small town in Wyoming territory. It’s unusual for them to come off the range during the winter, and Vic (Don Elson), the owner of the general store, wonders how they could have used up their supplies so quickly. Starrett, a mass of indignant belligerence, says he came in to settle a dispute as old as the West—a farmer, Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), intends to erect a barbed-wire fence to keep Starrett’s cattle out of his fields. Starrett sends Dan to buy some kerosene so he can set the wagon containing the barbed wire ablaze; he condemns Vic for ordering the fencing for Crane and for being seduced by the business the farmers bring him to support their interests over the ranchers.
Helen Crane (Tina Louise), having seen Starrett ride in, comes to appeal to him to leave her husband alone. She knows Blaise will kill Hal, who won’t back down from a fight even though he has never fired a gun. But she has more on her mind than that—she and Blaise became lovers when she and Hal first came to the territory, and Helen is bitter that Blaise rejected her when he could have had her for the asking. The drawn-out and fairly unnecessary scene comes to an end when Starrett gets up to look for Dan and Hal. A shootout in the local saloon is imminent, but a large and imposing man in uniform comes into the saloon just as guns are about to be drawn.
Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), a retired Union officer, and his gang of outlaws are on the run from the U.S. Cavalry. They are wanted for stealing $40,000 in gold, and Bruhn disarms all the townsmen to prevent an attack. They intend to stay the night and ride out in the morning. Bruhn demands absolute discipline from his men, forbidding them from touching either a drop of whiskey or the four women in town, and has Starrett take him to Doc Langer (Dabbs Greer), the veterinarian, for some patching up. He took a bullet, and Langer, unskilled at performing surgery on humans, is sweating bullets as he works on the unanesthetized Bruhn. Although he extracts the bullet, he tells Starrett it went in deep, and it’s more than likely that Bruhn will die from internal bleeding. If that happens, the gang will be off their tether, free to rape and pillage to their hearts’ content. Starrett cooks up a scheme to lead the gang into the mountains where they will all die from exposure, a sacrifice of his own life he’s willing to make after realizing he was eager to shoot Crane down for no real reason.
Day of the Outlaw was shot on location near Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. A ski resort had been opened there in 1958, so it’s possible that De Toth thought they would be able to combine authenticity with comfort; however, snowstorms caused delays, and Ryan developed pneumonia that had him on bed rest for a week. In truth, Ryan looks pretty haggard throughout this film, and producer/screenwriter Philip Yordan has been quoted as saying, “Everyone was on the bum with that picture.” In this case, however, the cast’s discontent adds mightily to the sense of claustrophobia and helplessness that gives this film its gravity.
Ives’ Bruhn uses his commanding presence and the testimony of Shorty (Jack Woody), who served under him, as to his ruthlessness with those who disobey his orders to keep his gang in line. Tied to his honor as a former soldier and haunted by a massacre he led in Utah, Bruhn is an odd choice of leader for a bunch of thugs. Ives put a spin on his Big Daddy performance from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) that makes his fear-inspiring position believable, but it is his waning energy as his life drains away that creates the most effective tension in the picture. Ives even has a Brick in this film, a young man named Gene (David Nelson) who seems extremely out of place among the crazy, garden-variety, Western outlaws Bruhn leads. His basic decency and desire to protect Vic daughter’s Ernine (Venetia Stevenson), to whom he is attracted, has him continually bolstering Bruhn’s authority, and Bruhn protects him like a son.
In the scene that may have influenced the wedding reception in Ride the High Country, Bruhn grants his restless men’s request to bring the townswomen over to dance. The ensuing caricature of an evening social is truly grotesque. The camera spins as the women are dragged around the floor. Helen is spun so hard her hair comes undone and whips around her visage of abject disgust and fear; she eventually must be rescued from the gropes of her dance partner. The trek into the mountains not only lends a stark authenticity to the struggle for survival, but also seems to present some real dangers. The snow was very deep, and the horses had to be whipped through to break trail. The penultimate scene, in which one of the thugs has frozen to death overnight and the other has lost the use of his hands, is both gruesome and pathetic. The final shootout we always come to expect at the end of Westerns is given a genuinely tense and unique twist.
I love Robert Ryan as an actor, but I can’t say much for his performance here. He has the least interesting of the lead roles, and lacks the charisma and youth to be a believable lover for the voluptuous and much younger Tina Louise. Admittedly, the actor chosen to play her husband is no looker, but he has a certain backbone that comes through as more attractive than Ryan’s scrappiness. In general, the supporting actors were given good dialogue and execute it well, filling out this very cheap-looking film with a believable community under siege. With an A-list budget and some A-list actors, this film could have inspired some comparisons with elements of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Its happy and redemptive ending, foreshadowed for at least one of its characters, mars the cold bleakness De Toth builds up admirably, but doesn’t entirely erase it. The West is hardly finished in Day of the Outlaw, but, like Bruhn, we know the end is near.