The cover art for Day of the Outlaw depicts a rattled, scantily clad Tina Louise kneeling beneath two armed male figures and clutching a pistol; she peers towards the camera with an expression of cagey fear. This image doesn’t appear in the film, most likely functioning as titillation to draw in the crowds for a cheaply-made Western. However, it does feel representative of the film overall. Set against a plain, bifurcated grey and white background with a hint of a mountain peak and containing a vulnerable and sexualized woman overpowered by competing men, the poster is a totem of the bleak mood, stark visuals, and deceptive simplicity of this exercise in psychosexual tension.
The script by Phillip Yordan adheres to a traditional three-act structure, but nevertheless plays with the conventions of subject matter that normally coincide with the three-act tradition. The beginning feels like the third act of an entirely different film, imbuing the first act with the kind of tension often preceded by at least an hour of story. Domineering rancher Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) intends to prevent farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) from putting up a barbed wire fence and dividing the land, but there’s more to Starrett’s resentment than a land dispute. Starrett has been carrying on with Crane’s wife, Helen (Tina Louise), for some time. The Cranes have traversed the barren landscape in order to collect materials and confront Starrett. Blaise’s lust for Helen simmers against her cold objections and his feud with Hal escalates into bold threats, and the two prepare for an inevitable duel.
Obviously, Day of the Outlaw contains more than it lets on, an exemplar of economic filmmaking on a low budget. Andre DeToth (House of Wax) makes ingenious use of negative space in his Western-noir, turning scarcity into an asset. Instead of a textured mountain range looming in every shot, in accordance with Western filmmaking tradition, a painted backdrop consisting only of smooth peaks appears above a vast expanse of whiteness, suggesting both the immensity and emptiness of the setting, appropriately named Bitters, Wyoming. Further enhanced by the black and white cinematography, this contrasty, minimalist aesthetic communicates the bleakness and isolation surrounding the characters, and the interior sets augment the wintry, schematic visual concept through an emphasis on lines, shapes, and carefully placed details to signify the conditions of the inhabitants as well as the necessary psychological tension implicated by the plot.
Blaise and Hal’s standoff nearly occurs in a sparse saloon before being interrupted by a sudden invasion of a band of outlaws led by the wounded Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), who hold the entire town hostage. Two of Bruhn’s men, Tex (Jack Lambert) and Pace (Lance Fuller), take special notice of the town’s women and routinely attempt to rape them, although the word is never uttered onscreen (not that it has to be). This turn of events retroactively gives the earlier drama a second function, namely providing a shady foundation to Starrett that, when combined with his more heroic turn in the face of the outlaw invasion, renders him a complex and morally gray character. Robert Ryan’s performance invaluably drives home this trait, his imposing and rigid posture and duplicitous eyes lending a great deal of malleability to audience sympathy. Burl Ives’ performance strikes a similar note. Bruhn’s ruthlessness and severity belies an underlying moral code illustrated by Ives’ warm delivery and subtly intense expressions. It is he that almost always prevents his men from doing what they want with Helen or Ernine (Venetia Stevenson), the daughter of the town merchant. Perversely, Starrett is the good guy you hate and Bruhn is the bad guy you love.
In a similarly reversed fashion, the story culminates in an understated and nihilistic climax that counters the more traditional inciting incident. Here, Starrett leads Bruhn and his outlaws into the snowy mountains without a trail where they hope to escape an incoming cavalry. By ending on this unforgiving, white abyss, Day of the Outlaw fully embraces and revels in its literal and figurative barrenness, maxing out the isolation and forcing the toxic masculinity, greed, and opportunism to eat itself in the absence of prey. Focusing on the destructive force of wanton greed and sexual predation admirably desecrates the sense of entitlement in so many male Western archetypes, but unfortunately does so by sacrificing the agency of the female characters. Still, DeToth crafts an impressively critical Western subversion, blending dichotomies and deconstructing conventions to haunting effect. | Nic Champion
The Blu-ray is satisfying clear, and consequently sheds light on the imperfections of rear projected backdrops which occasionally jitter. Although unintended, the unstable image happens to mirror the highly charged situations in the film. A commentary by author Jeremy Arnold provides concise but highly insightful readings into the film.