"I'd like to say a word for the farmer,
He came out west a made a lot of changes."
"He came out west and built a lot of fences..."
"...And built 'em right acrost our cattle ranges."
The Farmer and the Cowman from Oklahoma!
by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein
The animosity between ranchers and farmers over the location of barbed wire fences is one that rears its head a good few times over the course of the western film genre. This is hardly surprising given the real world basis for the conflict, which began in the 1870s when farmers began erecting such fences to keep their livestock enclosed, effectively putting barriers up on land through which ranchers had for years driven their cattle when the blizzard conditions of the Northern Plains forced them to move their herds south to warmer territory for the winter. This led to what became known as the 'Big Die Up', where farmers, concerned that there would not be enough grazing land to support their own livestock and that of the travelling ranchers, installed barbed wire fences on surrounding land specifically to prevent the northern cattle from being driven south. The process led to the decimation of many herds and what became known as the Fence Cutting Wars, which resulted in sometimes violent conflict between the ranchers and farmers and a good many largely ineffective court cases. This was finally brought to an end in 1884 when legislation was passed to make the cutting of fences a felony, while landowners were required to restrict their fencing to their own property and provide gates for access every three miles. Here endeth today's American history lesson.
One of the first of many things that struck me about the 1959 Day of the Outlaw, the final western from Hungarian-American director André De Toth, is that it assumes its audience is at the very least aware of the basics of this conflict and thus doesn't need to have it spelt out for them via a scrolling textual introduction. I say one of the first things because it's beaten to the punch by the opening images of the snow-covered Wyoming landscape, a far from familiar setting for a 1950s western. At the mercy of this weather is the micro-town of Bitters, which I'm guessing took its name from the winter weather rather than the attitude of its small number of seemingly friendly inhabitants. This looks set to change when hard-nosed rancher Blaise Starrett and his foreman Dan roll up outside the local store and spot a consignment of barbed wire in the wagon of farmer Hal Crane. Starrett has apparently warned Crane about this before and sets his mind to settling this once and for all, even if it means killing him in a shoot-out. But is the real reason for their feud that Starrett is in still love with Crane's wife Helen, with whom he was involved before she went and married Crane?
It seems clear that Starrett is being set up as the bad guy of the piece, a supposition given extra weight by the casting of Robert Ryan, an actor so adept at projecting cold-hearted malevolence that simply casting him could be a shortcut to evil intent – it's Robert Ryan, he's not happy, so you'd better watch out. Yet when Starrett and Crane first meet within the timeframe of the film, Starrett delivers a speech about how it was people like him that worked to tame the land for the likes of Crane to just move in and occupy that is both heartfelt and persuasive. At this moment Starrett doesn't sound like the bad guy at all but an embittered man with a justifiable grievance. Their conflict climaxes with a showdown that pits Starrett against Crane and two of his men, one that looks certain to end in at least one of them being killed. Then, just as all four are set to draw their pistols, the door is thrown open and the story is thrust suddenly and unexpectedly in a very different direction.
This interruption is triggered by the arrival of a criminal gang lead by Jack Bruhn (an excellent Burl Ives), a notorious ex-army captain who was once responsible for the massacre of an entire village of Mormons. On the run after robbing an army payroll wagon and looking to hole up for a few days, they disarm the men and round up the locals, who are held at virtual gunpoint in communal buildings. The thought of getting their hands on the town's whisky and women has the gang members drooling, but the authoritative Bruhn forbids them access to either, knowing that once they have a few drinks inside them he could lose control of his men, and history could end up repeating itself. "My men won't molest your women," he assures them, then adding ominously, "unless I give them permission."
What began in familiar western territory now takes on echoes of Key Largo and inadvertently foreshadows the home invasion thriller, a sub-genre that grew out the establishment's fear of its own youth in post-Charles Manson America. But in a rather neat twist, the man who was earlier being set up as the bad guy of the story is now the nearest thing it has to a potential hero. There's just one thing. Without his guns, he's effectively emasculated, reliant instead on skills of persuasion that initially fail him and pitted against men who are more desperate, more dangerous and more skilled with firearms than him or his companions. Even his one small triumph – an exhausting fist-fight with one Bruhn's men that he eventually wins – is immediately undercut when the watching Bruhn orders two of the others to beat him senseless by way of reprisal.
The tension over whether Bruhn will lose control of his increasingly twitchy band of lecherous outlaws is cranked up by a bullet wound in his chest that, even after the slug has been removed by the town's veterinarian, looks likely to kill him in the not-too-distant future. This reaches a peak at an alcohol-free dance the gang persuade Bruhn to sanction, where the town's four womenfolk are subject to the sort of leering advances that are only a few terrifying steps away from rape.
The one weak spot in the gang's intimidating front is its youngest member Gene, whose early air of potentially lethal danger (he assures the veterinarian that he'll kill him if Bruhn dies while under the knife) later dissolves to reveal a sensitive young man who does what he can to look out for the safety of the town's few womenfolk, particularly the pretty young Ernine. It's typical of a film that repeatedly plays with audience expectations that Ernine initially throws Gene's chance-taking protection of her and her young brother Bobby right back in his face. "He's alright," Bobby tells her after Gene pulls his pistol on a comrade to rescue the boy from the cruelty, to which Ernine replies coldly, "He's as rotten as the rest of them." And while by this point he's clearly the conscience of the group and someone who'd do well to abandon them and throw in with the townsfolk instead, even at the moment you expect him to do so, his loyalty to the almost fatherly Bruhn immediately overrides his emotional needs.
De Toth adopts a most effective low-key approach that is peppered with small cinematic pleasures (the bullet removal sequence is suggestively grisly and genuinely tense) and a few small but intriguing surprises. The opening scenes are a case in point, with Starrett and Dan's arrival and group interractions filmed almost exclusively in long-held master shots, with none of the expected mid-shots or close-ups, while the the first fight between Starrett and Bruhn's man can cut unexpectedly from energetic mid-shots and close-ups to a static extreme wide in which the men are dwarfed by the surrounding snow and mountain woodland. The director also rations his use of Star Trek main theme composer Alexander Courage's atmospheric score, with whole sequences playing out with no musical accompaniment, including a couple that would traditionally be scored to the hilt.
That the story undergoes a second twist that takes it into survival thriller territory should perhaps not be the surprise it proved to be for me and takes an already downbeat western into what initially looks to be even darker territory. That Bruhn is so willing to take Starrett at his word to get them to this point is perhaps the film's only real credibility stretch, but the decisions they make are ultimately driven by a search for redemption on the part two of the principal characters, which in storytelling terms provides its own thematic logic.
Day of the Outlaw hails from a time when the western was starting to shake off the more morally simplistic stories of its infancy to tell more complex tales in which the definition of what constitutes good and bad was not so clear cut. It's a time when heroes no longer wore white hats and were not always pure of heart, but where they might find redemption by facing up to their demons and selflessly putting their own lives on the line. Day of the Outlaw is a real torchbearer for this more thoughtful breed of western, a compellingly handled and impressively performed reminder that a genre that had its foundations in pulp fiction became the foundation for some of the most thoughtful and rewarding works of American mainstream cinema.
A solid 1.85:1 transfer of a film that was likely never designed to leap from the screen but instead reflect the cold isolation of its location, something the monochrome image here captures with aplomb. The level of detail is consistently impressive and the tonal range is attractively pictched, with beefy black levels but no serious loss of detail in the shadows or the dark clothing in which many of the characters are dressed. Crucially, there's also no burn-out of highlights, allowing the texture of the snow to register in all but the most extreme of weather conditions. There's a very faint trace of flickering on some shots, but the image is otherwise spotless and sits solidly within the frame. A fine film grain is visible and does not look artificially enhanced. Nice.
The Linear PCM mono soundtrack has some slight range restriction consistent with a film of this vintage, but is otherwise clear and free of damage and background hiss or crackle. You can also select to play the film with an isolated music and effects track should you wish, which is of a similar quality but a little quieter than the main track.
Optional English SDH subtitles have also been included.
Bertrand Tavernier (26:03)
In what looks like an extra from a French DVD or Blu-ray release, director Bertrand Tavernier talks enthusiastically about a film he regards as one of the greatest westerns ever made, providing some background on the production and fascinating analysis of key scenes and elements (in the process highlighting things that I'd only registered subconciously). He reveals that he became friends with De Toth after inviting him to introduce a screening of the film, and intimates that credited screenwriter Philip Yordan didn't actually write a word and that the script was the work on De Toth and Robert Ryan. He also informs us that the words De Toth wanted engraved in his tombstone were: "Have fun. I did."
Some choice inclusions here, kicking off with an excellent new essay on the film by Glenn Kenny, which is followed by an excerpt from an article that appeared in Empire magazine in September 1994 by John Naughton entitled I'll Teach You How to Be a Director in Two Hours, which is built around an interview with De Toth, who was due to deliver a directing masterclass at the Edingburgh Film Festival. Delightfully, there is also a page-by-page reproduction of the original press book, the sort of promo material it's always lovely to see. Credits, stills and notes on viewing are also on board.
A terrific, noir-influenced western remarkable for its restraint, its tension, its location, its performances, its intelligence and its direction, and it gets the sort of release here that all such films deserve. Two solid extras and a very fine transfer mark this as a must-have, particularly for genre fans. Highly recommended.