Film review – Day of the Outlaw (Andre De Toth, 1959)

Andre de Toth’s unusually complex Western ‘Day of the Outlaw’ has found its way onto the Master of Cinema label this month as a dual-format release. A forgotten and under-appreciated film, shining the spotlight on it will hopefully mean it finds a much-deserved wider audience.

The film is set in an isolated town called Bitter in Wyoming. The story opens with a couple of men on horses riding towards the camera in a frosty snow storm. It is a clever opening scene by De Toth, setting up the rugged main character Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) with the ominous line, “I’m through with being reasonable.” We know he’s got a bone to pick with someone, with the assumption that we’re going to find out who and why pretty quickly. That we do.

What is essentially a boundry dispute about the location of a barbed wire fence reveals a hidden layer of complication when we learn that Blaise is having an affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife to Hal (Alan Marshal) of said boundry dispute. She seems absolutely loyal to her husband despite evidently being in love with Blaise.

As tensions continue to rise, the two men end up in a standoff that will likely lead to one or both being killed. This is poleaxed by the arrival of an out-of-town gang headed up by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), who pose a much greater threat to the men, their wives, their land and their livelihood.

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At 92 minutes long and a reported budget of just $400,000 (a little over $3m in 2016), De Toth has to work with what he has and work fast. It’s a great achievement that this was done so well, especially in what appears to be torrid weather conditions. Characters are fully realised despite often not being afforded enough screen time to develop them. A good example of this is young gang member Gene (David Nelson), who goes through an internal psychological journey in what amounts to about 10 minutes of screen time.

The film was cited by Quentin Tarantino as a reference point in the run up to The Hateful Eight and it’s easy to see the resemblance [1]. The opening sequence was a direct homage to Day of the Outlaw, with a long shot allowing the lead character(s) to naturally approach through a snow storm to join the viewer at the front of the screen. The secluded setting in increasingly worse weather, high tensions, conflicting characters having to live side-by-side whilst the story unfolds. Nothing is stolen, but it is clearly a film Tarantino rates.

Ryan’s Blaise makes a fantastic focal point around which the film plays out. He is a man who stands by his own morals. His affair with Helen is justified by him essentially saying he has no respect for her husband and thinks she deserves better. He undertakes an openly noble act of self-sacrifice for the good of the townspeople he thinks little of, though refuses to take any credit for it. He is the film’s only hero and he plays it coolly throughout. It isn’t Ryan’s most celebrated role but one worthy of a second look if you’re a fan.

Day of the Outlaw may be a flawed film but there’s enough on offer for fans of the anti-Western subgenre that seems to have found its way back to popular interest following the likes of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant. If you liked any of these films then this is worth checking out.

[1] In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino stated, “I can definitely say that as bleak as our movie is, we are definitely the funniest snow Western ever made. This is funnier than The Great Silence, it’s funnier than Day of the Outlaw.” Quite what he means by this isn’t exactly clear. There isn’t much humour in Day of the Outlaw.

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935)

Having recently watched McCarey’s excellent Make Way For Tomorrow, I thought I’d dig below the surface and watch some of his other films. I came into Ruggles of Red Gap nothing about Charles Laughton and the other members of the cast, and very little about McCarey. I have to say that on first impression, I am very disappointed.

Laughton portrays Ruggles, an English valet who is working in Paris but is transferred to America to work for a brash American (confusingly portrayed by Charlie Ruggles). Once in Washington, our valet develops as a character and grows in confidence, going from obedient servant to full independence, eventually deciding to open his own Anglo-American restaurant.

Laughton biographer Simon Callow, in a key bonus feature on the UK Masters of Cinema release, discusses in great detail his opinion on the performance and his disappointment having watched it. In context, he was comparing him to his great performances as the Hunchback of Notre Damme and as Henry VIII, to name a couple. I have not seen these, but I wholeheartedly agree with everything he says. I’d got further – as an Englishman, the whole thing is utterly insulting.

The Ruggles that is portrayed is a bumbling Brit that would leave any aristocratic servant-employer worried for their own safety. Indeed, I’d probably ask for a different waiter if I was served by Ruggles in a restaurant. The portrayal leaves the viewer with an air of discomfort. There’s something going on between his flickering eyes and his awkward body language that made me want to look away. In hindsight, I think it was Laughton’s attempt at comedy. Perhaps it was “of the time”, but it really hasn’t aged well.

That he can’t find any route out of servitude until he goes to America, which is patriotically portrayed here – unashamedly – as the land of the free, is undermining of Britain. With very little knowledge of Laughton as a person, I’m willing to guess that he must have been very anti-British to accept such a role.

The film was hugely popular amongst American viewers and very much not popular in Britain, and for the reasons just mentioned I can understand why. Having listened to Callow speak so fondly of Laughton and McCarey, I’m really keen to seek out something that justifies their enduring popularity. I’ll gladly welcome any suggestions!

Ruggles of Red Cap is available now in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD.