' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Friday, June 02, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Day of the Outlaw (1959)

If the free ranging cattlemen of Kevin Costner’s 2003 neo-classical Western “Open Range” were portrayed as romantic heroes, in Andre De Toth’s “Day of the Outlaw,” on the other hand, free grazer Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) uses a barbed wire fenced erected outside the drolly named Bitters, Wyoming almost exclusively as a pretense to ride into town and threaten to kill the man who married the girl he loved. Once upon a time Blaise laid down the law in Bitters, a place with no official law to speak of, and De Toth evokes this in a shot where Blaise ascends the staircase of the hotel, turning to face the men below, their faces framed the railings of the staircase, making it look for all the world like they are now imprisoned inside their own town. Ah, but if Blaise would seem the metaphorical thundersnow, turns out he only presages the avalanche, which occurs when Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his wicked band of rogue army calvarymen burst through the door and turn everything upside down.

Forgive me, for even if I have since seen Ives in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), it’s hard for me not to associate him with Christmas, specifically the 1964 television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” especially “Silver and Gold,” which I can only hear in his voice. And so, there is something diabolical in seeing Ives in a so-called snow western set in this mountain outpost, as if he is presciently twisting that persona inside-out, introducing his band of robbers in an indelible monologue that’s like an NBA player introduction as Quentin Tarantino movie, gleefully stopping the movie in its tracks. But it also demonstrates how Bruhn is not simply the leader of these men but the glue holding them together, as much as Blaise was the glue once holding Bitters together, and from which most of the drama derives, whether Bruhn can keep his increasingly rowdy men on a leash and whether Blaise can get them out before Bruhn loses control. This is never more frightening than Bruhn acquiescing to his men having a kind of Saturday night social in lieu of being allowed to drink, the bouncy piano playing juxtaposed against the palpably lascivious men as they violently twirl the town’s few women around and around the dance floor, a stark portrait of civility one shoe drop away from collapsing into anarchy.

In this moment, De Toth looks up at Bruhn through those same staircase railings, putting him inside his own prison, while shots of him among his men gradually give way from the order-giving planet around whom all the others orbit to someone hoping his bluff is not called. He is increasingly isolated, not unlike the town itself, the snowy vistas in the stark monochrome less quietly imposing isolation on the small population. When Blaise gets in a fistfight with one of Bruhn’s men, De Toth eventually cuts to a long shot of them swinging beneath the mountain backdrop, making the whole ordeal feel smaller than it already is, pitiful and pointless. The film’s small budget, in a weird way, amplifies this sensation, with meager interiors and exteriors that make Bitters far away from the rest of the world. And being trapped with nowhere to go fuels the conclusion in which Blaise claims he can guide Bruhn and his men on an escape route through the mountains, an escape route that proves not to exist, leading them on an unwitting suicide mission instead. He saves the town, in a way, though that he goes it alone rather than with the help of any of those townfolk augments the movie’s quiet skewering of a libertarian ethos, where rather than a quick draw shootout, “Day of the Outlaw” turns into a survivalist’s tale, every man for himself.

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