Blu-ray review: Day of the Outlaw

Starring: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives
Director: Andre De Toth

Hide the liquor and the women! The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of this exceptional western comes hot on the heels of the same label’s release of Shane, and it’s interesting to note the similarities between the two films. They both kick off with a feud between ranchers and settlers, between those who want to roam free across the land and those who want to fence it in. (Robert Ryan’s grizzled, tyrannical frontiersman even goes so far as to make a speech about how he’s spent blood and gunpowder civilising the territory which is almost identical to the one the baddie in Shane gives.) However, before the tension can boil over into violence, both sides are taught a morality lesson about keeping their baser instincts in check when the whole town is taken hostage by a gang of leering, trigger-happy bank robbers, led by Burl Ives’ steely-willed commander, Bruhn.

Director Andre De Toth was well-versed in horror and SF (he’s best remembered for helming House of Wax, one of the highlights of Vincent Price’s filmography), and there’s a suggestion of H.G. Well’s Doctor Moreau about Bruhn, who seems more lion tamer than leader of men. He’s the only one who can keep his stooges on the leash (“they could swallow this town whole and no one would live to tell the tale”), but he’s seriously wounded – and if he dies, everyone is doomed.

At first glance, it’s a curt, gravelly performance much like his more familiar one as the hard-headed pater familias of the Hannassey clan in William Wyler’s The Big Country, but this role cuts much, much deeper – there are cracks in the granite facade, and we get to peek at the terrified figure within.

The film brings a similar analytical power to the rest of its characters, especially Ryan’s rancher, who’s been having an affair with a farmer’s wife and looking for an excuse to kill the husband so he can have her all to himself. It’s a career best turn from Ryan, and the process of self-realization he undergoes when he meets Bruhn and his bestial crew is not only convincing but profoundly moving. But then all the performances are excellent, fired by a sharp script and taut direction.

The upshot is a western of rare power – a chamber western for two thirds of its running time, with a small cast and claustrophobic interiors. Then, in its last leg, it opens out into something epic, with gorgeous location photography that looks stunning on this Blu-ray. If you add any western to your collection this year, Day of the Outlaw should be it. 10/10

The picture is very clean and sharp in the interiors, which have a silvery, evenly lit look, but the glory of this transfer are snowy exteriors, with their spectrum of greys and silky blacks. There’s a beautiful high-contrast shot mid-film of the darkly clad townswomen trailing across sunlit slush and ice, but that’s only a preamble to the bleak, ethereal beauty of the mountainscapes in the last 20 minutes or so, with their freezing fogs that chill the bones. 10/10

An intelligent and well-informed 26-min chat about the film with director Bertrand Tavernier. Among other things, he discusses the director’s working methods and the mystery of who penned the script (credited to Philip Yordan, a screenwriter-entrepreneur who employed a whole stable of hacks to write under him, but probably mostly written by De Toth and Ryan). 7/10


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