Monday, September 3, 2012

Day of the Outlaw

The coldest movie ever made, Andre De Toth's DAY OF THE OUTLAW is a film you feel in your bones. It's a Western alright (I felt a certain obligation to have the first American film in my canon come out of this country's signature genre) and few films have ever utilized the great inhospitable frontier quite like this. It also stars Robert Ryan, so often the villain's villain, here the noble antihero, Blaise Starrett.

 He starts off the film, in typical Robert Ryan fashion, as the sort of gruff outlier in a snowed-in frontier settlement, the antagonizing party in a love triangle with Alan Marshal and Tina Louise that is clearly going nowhere. That's when Trouble rides into town, and that's Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Burl Ives. He plays a wounded and disgraced cavalry officer turned bank robber, and he soon overwhelms the hard-up town with his marauding band of outlaws.

What follows is a tense and terrifying struggle against impossible odds, as Blaise lures the increasingly uncontrollable band of uninvited guests on a trek into the wilderness to seek out a mythical pass through the snow. It's a bleak and hopeless quest, and one taken on with an air of noble sacrifice, a desperate attempt at atonement by Blaise, and it begets the film's harrowing final setpiece, an epic march of death through the heart of winter. No film, save perhaps for AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, coveys the feel of certain doom quite as effectively.

Location shooting will do that, I suppose. The film is just an immensely real, visceral experience. It weighs on you, it chills you, and ultimately, it takes the genre deep into territory that even the likes of Anthony Mann and John Ford hadn't dared to do. It's a very primal film, and in that way it feels akin to much of Mann's work, but perhaps then credit goes to Ryan, whose presence is certainly much more dubious than Jimmy Stewart, for coloring this stark black and white landscape with such despair. Bleak, but mighty brilliant.

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