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May 15, 2008

Day of the Outlaw

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Andre De Toth - 1959
MGM Region 1 DVD

To coincide with what would have been Andre De Toth's 96th birthday -

Day of the Outlaw is more noir then western. Much of the action takes place indoors in small spaces. When the action moves outside during the last sequence, the whiteness of a snow storm closes in on the characters. The film was shot in black and white, emphasizing the starkness of the almost desolate Wyoming town, the snow and the surrounding mountains. Some of the characters could be described as being in shades of gray, Robert Ryan, the nominal hero, is motivated at least as much by self-interest as he is in protecting neighbors he doesn't care for, while chief outlaw Burl Ives maintains discipline over his disparate and desperate gang, keeping the potential for mayhem in check.

It may be a cliche at this point to discuss De Toth's films as being about shifting loyalties, but Day of the Outlaw is another clear example of De Toth's themes. The film begins with Ryan riding into town with Nehrmiah Persoff. Ryan's ranch foreman. At the general store, it is established that cattleman Ryan is in conflict with farmer Alan Marshall due to barb wire restricting the grazing space. Additionally, Marshall's wife is Tina Louise, with a past relationship with Ryan that is still unresolved. The hostility between the rancher and the farmers, as well well as any romantic entanglements are forgotten as soon as Ives and his gang barge into the town's saloon. On the run from the cavalry for steeling a shipment of gold, the gang plans to stay for the night before heading out again.

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The day of the outlaw is actually a weekend, beginning with Ives getting treatment for a bullet in his chest from an animal doctor, and his seeming recovery from what appeared to be a fatal injury. Ryan tries to keep the peace between the townspeople, who are temporarily held hostage, while making sure that Ives' gang stays in control.

As a film that takes place mostly indoors, De Toth uses visual motifs of mirrors, windows, and doors. The use of mirrors is, of course, a literal device for the characterr' own self-reflection. Tellingly, the barroom mirror is broken by one of the outlaws who finds it difficult to behave within the confines of Ives' orders to not drink or be with the town's four women. The windows and doors, as well as stair railings, serve as framing devices, again emphasizing the confinement of the characters. The indoors is suppose to be the minimal oasis of civilization, or at least civilized behavior, while the outdoors is wild and beyond the control of anyone.

When the outlaws are allowed to dance with the women, the women are treated like human sized rag dolls, swung and pulled along in what is less of a dance, than a gallop to music. The way the rest of the gang dances is contrasted with Ives' courtly waltz with Tina Louise. The youngest member of the gang, played by David Nelson, is shown as being perhaps too sensitive to really be an outlaw, but attempts to continue the sense of discipline ordered by old man Ives. (And now home viewers can delight in double features of the Nelson brothers in their respective westerns.)

In the relatively brief 92 minute running time, De Toth has filled the cast with vivid character actors like Elisha Cook. Dabbs Greer and Frank DeKova. DeKova plays a half-Native American outlaw named Denver, which at least for me, hilariously links him to Rio Bravo's Ricky Nelson's character of Colorado. A professional link worth noting is that about six later, David Nelson directed Burl Ives in the short lived comedy series O.K. Crackerby. In Day of the Outlaw, Burl Ives may try to steal the gold, but succeeds in stealing this film.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 15, 2008 12:00 AM


I just saw this last week. Burl Ives is so great, his diplomatic evil reminded me of the many similar characters in the action heist movies in the 80s and 90s (like Alan Rickman in Die Hard).

Posted by: Adam R at May 15, 2008 07:21 AM

Burl Ives is always great, isn't he? He just takes the screen with that squint-eyed, expressive face and that marvelous bass rumble of a voice. But I haven't seen this movie, and just went back to De Toth's filmography and realized I've seen only House of Wax. Obviously I need to remedy that.

Is it just me, or was there an odd mini-genre of "good folk held hostage in their homes by crminals" in the 1950s? Such an outwardly placid era but the fears on display in the movies give the lie to that. I am thinking of Suddenly, The Wild One, He Ran All the Way, The Desperate Hours ... there are probably more.

Posted by: Campaspe at May 16, 2008 11:22 AM

Campaspe: My own thoughts go back earlier to The Petrified Forest, with a small community held hostage. In Day of the Outlaw, it is almost as if Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart had changed places.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at May 16, 2008 11:48 PM