Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Day of the Outlaw is a 1959 western directed by André De Toth and it’s an example of the fine intelligent complex westerns of the 50s.

The basic plot is set up neatly and economically before the opening credits are even over. Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) is a rancher and he’s involved in a bitter dispute with farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal). Crane wants to enclose the land; Starrett needs it to be left open. Starrett is also having an affair with Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise). Starrett has two reasons to kill Crane and that’s obviously what he intends to do.

It’s a very typical western plot with ranchers pitted against farmers plus a romantic triangle.

The twist is that this is not the plot of the movie at all. Fairly early on an event occurs which introduces a whole new entirely different plot which becomes the central plot. It becomes almost a different movie, a movie about survival in a bleak unforgiving landscape, although as the story unfolds the viewer will see that there are thematic connections.

It’s a very daring and clever piece of screenwriting by the great Philip Yordan.

A band of outlaws arrives in town (it’s a tiny township named Bitters). They’re vicious degenerate thugs, led by disgraced former army officer Captain Bruhn (Burl Ives).

Bruhn has his men under control, but only just. If he loses control the gang will unquestionably go on a rampage of murder and destruction and the outlook for the women of Bitters will be very grim indeed. As long as Bruhn is alive and healthy his men will obey him but he may not remain alive and healthy for very long. He has a bullet in him. The wound is extremely serious. There’s no doctor in Bitters but there is a vet and he will have to keep Bruhn alive.

It’s not surprising that squabbles between ranchers and farmers and romantic triangles now seem rather unimportant.

The townspeople have all been disarmed and in any case Starrett is the only one who would be any use in a fight. They’re up against seven very hard men all armed to the teeth. The power balance is entirely on the side of Bruhn and his men. Somehow Starrett has to find a way to upset that balance.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Bruhn and Starrett are deadly enemies but there is one thing on which they agree - Bruhn’s thugs have to be kept under control. Bruhn might be a bad man but he doesn’t want the townspeople slaughtered and he doesn’t want the women harmed. He is also knows that once he loses control over his men he will never regain it. Bruhn and Starrett are enemies but in that one curious way they are almost uneasy allies. Almost.

This movie treats power relationships as complex and constantly shifting.

It’s also a movie with complex conflicted characters. Starrett is a good man with a very dark side. Bruhn is a very bad man, with perhaps something of good still left in him.

Redemption is a common enough theme in westerns but in this movie it gets complicated. There are at least five characters (not all of them men) who could be seen as being in need of redemption. Perhaps all of us are need of redemption.

There are outright evil characters in this film but among the key characters there are a lot of shades of grey.

It’s a movie that could only have worked with a high quality cast but luckily that’s exactly what André De Toth had. Robert Ryan gives an extremely subtle and superb performance. Starrett is a man of blood. He has never been an outlaw but when he arrived in Bitters the town was controlled by outlaws. Starrett and his pal Dan cleaned up the town. Some killing was required. Starrett has killed, without any regrets. At the start of the movie he intends to kill again. He is a seasoned gunfighter and Hal Crane has never fired a gun in anger. If Starrett provokes Crane into a gunfight it will be, morally, murder. But despite this Starrett is the hero of the story. He is not the villain.

Bruhn has done terrible things and he is the villain, but he is a complex villain and Burl Ives gives one of his finest performances.

Helen is the heroine, but she has a dark side as well. Tina Louise is extremely good. Also surprisingly good is David Nelson (Ricky Nelson’s brother) as the youngest member of the gang, not yet totally corrupted. Venetia Stevenson is good as his love interest. Jack Lambert gives us a masterclass is how to convey pure evil and terrifying menace.

This movie has a stark austere beauty. This is a remote land of snow and ice, a hostile but beautiful world capable of killing. De Toth had to fight to be allowed to shoot it in black-and-white but it was the right decision.

There is suspense and terror and some action but this is a rather cerebral psychological western for grown-ups. It’s structurally bold and it has a lot of depth and nuance. It’s a truly great movie and is very highly recommended.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray offers an exquisite transfer Lus there’s an excellent audio commentary.

You might also want to check out the review at the excellent Riding the High County blog.


  1. It's a fantastic film, and, yes, it works so much better in black and white, since it's mostly in snow anyway!

    It does that thing that Psycho and other films started to do, which is set up a story, and then go and tell a completely different story. I think the last section may actually be the best - there are some really striking moments.

    I would also VERY highly recommend this!

    1. It's interesting to see that kind of real narrative boldness in a 1959 western.

  2. Thanks for the referral link!
    I think this has to be De Toth's best film, visually bleak and chilling with some rich characterization .

    1. Yes, it's a bona fide masterpiece that should have had a much bigger reputation.

  3. Thanks for bringing this to my attention--it is a first-rate movie. Robert Ryan is outstanding, but he's not alone; plenty of good acting, and a really interesting story.

    1. I definitely want to see more of André De Toth's westerns.