Day of the Outlaw (André De Toth, 1959)
I. Roll the bottle…
In the midst of the Wyoming wilderness, in a flat clearing laden with snow, overlooked by a crown of glacial mountains that touch down from out the horizon in cloaks of alpine, stand the signs of civilization blindly groping its way out of barren nature. You couldn’t call it a town; just a scattering of cabins propped up sparsely above the frigid ground in uncertain but near proximity to one another. In essence, a trading post, servicing the farmers brave enough to cultivate the surrounding land. But their comings-and-goings have begun to breed a sense of familiarity, of security, bringing with them the faces of even women and children… and the hopeful desire for a future of family, enterprise and community. Perhaps once the winter ends and the snow thaws, this bleak outpost may spring forth with life, stronger than what came the spring before, bringing it one more incremental step towards township. But looking at it, one may also feel that all it would take is one storm, one blizzard rolling down from those indifferent mountains, to level the village back to frozen earth and stop civility dead.
Come the storm does, but it’s not gales of wind and cold that threaten the hamlet, but something far more insidious. Riding into town, as if announcing the storm, is Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan). He views this quietly growing town, almost farcical in its naïve persistent, with open hostility, fearful of what it entails. The last of the hard men, he has civilized the wild, and as always, civilization has found his hardness no longer necessary, obsolete. His name alone speaks to how anachronistic he has become in his wintry surroundings, even as it accurately reflect the turmoil simmering within and around him. Society has passed him by and is now threatening to sweep him away. When word gets out – the virgin country is to be sliced through with barb-wire – it is one step for progress too far: blood will be drawn to protect his way of life, the hard man will turn on the society he fought to create.
During the Westerns List Project, at one point, zedz categorized the opening third of this film as something along the lines of soap-opera hokum, all of which thankfully falls to the wayside the moment survival becomes imperative. In many ways, its easy to categorize this opening as a wonderfully manipulative piece of misdirection, especially with its love triangle trappings, much like the rambling, comical opening to The Tall T (which this film rather resembles). Yet, to me, the opening clearly doesn’t work as a bait-and-switch; rather, it is the key to the entire film that proceeds from it. Above all else, Day of the Outlaw is a film in three movements (which I’ll roughly outline), and while the first may seem the slightest, it nonetheless develops all the themes and motifs that get worked out extensively in the next two. To most clearly delineate the way the opening movement folds out into the next two, one has to reach back, to De Toth’s other great Western, made 12 years prior: 1947’s Ramrod (see here). That film, a tragedy about a town that violently destroys itself in a range war, plays out many of the same elements that appear here, namely the dispute over territory, women and plain old male dominance. At one point, a characters warning (“That gun he carries is mostly bluff. You call his hand, it'll be plain murder.”) echoes the act that initiates Ramrod’s downward spiral. Here we find ourselves at the start of that vicious cycle: the particularities may be different, but there can be no doubt the outcome will be the same.
Ryan’s big speech on the bar stairs places the opening conflict in its proper context, beyond a simple case of adultery:
Starrett is a man who has fought to create what is now a town, and now feels robbed of his stake. Even his love affair isn’t simply frivolous human weakness: in the frontier, women are a rare commodity, if not the very force by which civility springs forth: with security come the women, with women come the family, with family comes society. In Bitters, women are few – only four, one still a girl; the latter, in fact, clamors for the town’s growth precisely so she can find a husband. It is a town that has yet to make that leap to the “family” step. By disrupting the Crane household, he has in essence disrupted that proliferation, just as much as he has by disrupting the claiming of the Crane land. This is no longer a simple love triangle; the moment Starrett picked up his gun, it became something else entirely. For a town this nascent, a civilization so tentative, the threat of violence will throw everything into chaos. An act of killing will, in essence, destroy all the inroads to civility that Starrett espouses in his monologue. It will turn Bitters (not so subtle) back into the lawless Wild West it has seemingly climbed out from.You got a big mouth, farmer. You got big eyes, too. You came here a year ago in your broken down wagon looking for a choice spot to settle and you think you found it. But you never stopped to think what made it such a good place. When Dan and I came here, Bitters was a nesting place for every thief and killer in the territory. A man's life wasn't worth the price of a bullet. No woman was safe on the streets, let alone in a lonely farmhouse. It took more than a big mouth to get rid of the lice who infested every bend of the road you ride so safely on. I'm not saying Dan and I did it alone, but we did more than our share. We hunted them down in the freezing cold while you sat back in the East hugging your pot-bellied stove. Nobody thanked us. Nobody paid us. We did it because we felt we belonged. We earned the right to belong. And all you've done is ride in here and put down your stinking boots. And now you tell us that you belong and we don't. Mr. Crane, you said you'd fight to keep what you want. Well, I've been doing that for twenty years and I intend to keep doing it, and no pig-belly farmer is going to stop me!
And so we reach the end of the movement, in the middle of a saloon, where Westerns tend to find themselves. On one side, Starrett, a man who has been surviving the unforgiving wild for twenty years, who has killed many men for that very bar to stand where it does. At the other end, three farmers, each with a gun at their side: they’ve never killed, but they have strength in numbers. Maybe Starrett can drop them all, maybe he can’t. Either way, blood will be shed and that must always be answered for. He turns to his number two, Dan, drunken, despondent, obviously apprehensive of what is to transpire. He doesn’t ask him to back him up; Starrett has one simple instruction: “Roll the bottle.” When that bottle breaks, the gunmen will draw. And, in one of the great shots in cinema, De Toth’s camera tracks horizontally from behind the bar counter as the bottle rolls… slowly… slowly… slowly drawing to the end, where it will roll off, shatter, and take the town of Bitters down with it…
II. A Bitter Occupation
…Yet, as the bottle reaches the end of its course, with nothing left but to tumble and crash, the unexpected occurs: the door swings open, swatting away the bottle, and with it, wiping away the trajectory of the narrative hitherto taken. But this interruption in the story is not a disavowal of all that came before, but the complete consummation of all that concerns and troubles the first movement. While disquieting and grim, one would hardly think to call this a horror-western; yet, it uses that ordering system most favored by the horror film: the Return of the Repressed. It’s not the first time De Toth’s made extensive use of it – in 1948’s Pitfall (see here), Dick Powell’s suburban family man must face off with his double in the form of Raymond Burr’s private eye, MacDonald: an amalgam of all the repressed urban alienation, violence and sexual perversity of the post-war era. The gunfight between Starrett and Crane looses a violence whose very suggestion threatens the stability of the frontier town. That internal conflict, in this moment, becomes final and crystallized, but above all else, externalized, in the form of the outlaws, led by Burl Ives’ Bruhn. Like some inadvertent piece of witchcraft, the rolling bottle conjures a monster out from the snowy deep… and like all great horror monsters, it only feeds off the tensions and anxieties already present in its surroundings. When the door swings open, crashing against the bottle, glass against glass, the clang has the distinct cadence of a gunshot. The duel doesn’t dissipate; it simply transfers its destructive power onto a foreign body.
It is in this second movement that the film settles into the pattern of the hostage film, one of the privileged narrative forms of 1950s American cinema. While some, like dominoharvey, may blast films like this, The Hitch-Hiker and The Tall T for being puerile or unpleasant (all while giving a pass to, say, The Desperate Hours), these films can’t be said to have arrived to their tone arbitrarily. The decade saw a proliferation of this type of film, all speaking towards some collective anxiety (suburban flight, McCarthyism, the Cold War, etc. – those old chestnuts). Yet, even without its increasing play for political allegory, the Western was the perfect vehicle for the hostage film. For the genre’s chief concern is the clash between civilization and wilderness, the way law and order asserts itself over lawlessness… and the way lawlessness can so easily pull society back into its mire. Day of the Outlaw, chief of all, seems to be a textbook example of the latter. It also distinguishes itself from the pack in essential ways. Unlike The Hitch-Hiker and The Tall T, De Toth’s film is a study of communal, not personal, survival. The town, so eager to turn on itself in the beginning, is suddenly bound together in the face of its own destruction. One criticism that can be leveled at the hostage film is the manner it argues for a certain debasement: the only way for the captives to survive their captors is to descend to the same level of violence. Here, the rules of engagement are different. Very quickly, something of a cease-fire is called – the townspeople are separated from their captors, and Bruhn promises to not harm them – and a feasible, tangible end-date is even assigned – once the storm clears, the bandits will ride out of town. This isn’t a story about hostages biding their time, waiting for the moment where they can outwit – and kill – their captors. Here, rather, is an uncertain peace which both sides must strain to maintain. In some odd distortion of the pacifist western, here is a hostage situation in which violence, from both sides, must be avoided at all costs, must be contained.
If Bruhn’s outlaws act as the town’s double in that they represent all the town must deny in order to flourish (which is to say, its opposite), Bruhn himself becomes a double to Starrett (the de-facto leader of the townspeople) in the way they carry the same heavy weight of authority and responsibility. The likeness extends even further. If Starrett begins the film in risk of starting a range war, whose end goal is the annihilation of the frontier town, Bruhn is someone who has accomplished that on a grander scale: it’s not difficult to imagine the nature of the Mormon massacre briefly alluded to, and Bruhn carries its memory with a tremendous unspoken guilt, a guilt his arrival spared Starrett from sharing. They are also both men who have become anachronisms in their surroundings. Starrett is a gunfighter, no longer needed by the civilization he forged out of the wild. Bruhn is an army captain hunted by the army, fighting a war whose command he has long been stripped of (shades of Quantrill’s Raiders). It is this latter point that distinguishes Bruhn. He holds himself to a higher standard of civility than his men. A gang of cutthroats, he nonetheless tries to organize them under the banner of an army unit. However, gutshot and living off borrowed time, he slowly watches as his authority starts to wane and the true savagery of his men emerge, the pretension of military discipline crumbling away. In many ways, for this second movement, it is Bruhn who is the true protagonist. He’s the character with the greatest agency, the largest influence on the course of the story, and he’s provided with biggest moral dilemma. When Starrett disobeys and Bruhn stands ready to kill him, Starrett manages to stay his execution with one sentence: “…I don’t believe you can hold your men.” Bruhn may try to shrug it off, but there is no doubt the question gnaws away at him as much as the tearing in his lungs.
It is fitting that the single thing that most threatens this unstable peace is the single thing that most civilizes the wild: the women. If one was to criticize the film for unpleasantness, certainly they would start at the threat of rape than hangs over the entire film. But it’s not something that can be brushed aside; no one can deny the threat of rape constitutes one of society’s primal fears. Whenever atrocity turns civilization back into ruins, history shows that rape makes its presence known. And for the frontier town, where women enjoy a special place of privilege, the element that turns pioneers into homesteaders, outposts into towns, this anxiety can only be magnified tenfold when threatened. Even Starrett, earlier when pleading his case, highlights that before he came “[n]o woman was safe on the streets”, their security being intrinsic to the coming of civilization. The threat of rape, taken seriously by De Toth (who has always brandished his films with a certain hard-won sympathy for women), serves to backslide civilization back to its primordial chaos. If it were to occur, it would be a complete severing of the social contract that had allow Bitters to exist, and required for it to continue to exist. Not only that, but the transgression could only serve to loose more violence upon that violence, the catalyst leading to the absolute destruction of Bitters. Throughout the entire second movement, both parties tiptoe around this reality with hushed terror. It is this threat that most panics the townsfolk, but ultimately leads them to comply. It is also this possibility that most stir up the bandits, until they start to disobey the iron-fisted command that had controlled them until then. Even Bruhn, fearful of the possibility of rape, can no longer deny it, but, with his pretensions of military order, thinks he can contain it. This culminates in the grand set-piece of the second movement, bringing it to its conclusion: the dance.
In the Western genre, dances and other social gatherings have a special place of privilege. They announce the ultimate triumph of civilization over wilderness: the arrival of society and all it entails. One need only look at the cinema of John Ford and the special emphasis he places on communal rituals. The church-raising in My Darling Clementine which, even before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, fulfills all the promises of a community freed of the vice and criminality that had previously strangled it. Or look at the wedding at the end of The Searchers, often called anti-climactic, but which provides the ultimate salve to the nightmare of frontier violence, racism and miscegenation that preceded it. The social affair springs forth from an abundance of civilization the way a mountain emerges from an abundance of earth. Yet, here in Day of the Outlaw, De Toth takes the Fordian dance and, from it, creates a distorted, taunting grotesque. It’s a bravura segment, constructed in a series of long takes – wide, revolving pans rotating around the circle of dancers. The technique brings to mind Max Ophüls. But if Ophüls pans were always elegant and fluid, moving with same refined steps as his dancers, De Toth’s movements are coarse and slightly reckless. It as if the camera is spinning out of control; as each pan progresses, we watch the dance descend slightly further into orgy and rape, all pretense of the social evaporating. The movement of the camera will stop, the shot end, as order briefly asserts itself. But the camera will rev up again, synching with the player piano, spinning like some forsaken engine spitting exhaust into the violent air. Bruhn, whether he realizes it or not, thinking he can pacify his men’s lust with a simulacrum of sociability, erodes both his authority with his men and the confidence of his hostages. His command, until then unchallenged and unquestioned, is called out when one of his men nearly pulls a gun on him. Starrett, on hearing what’s occurring, unthinkingly marches straight to the saloon, where the trouble all began. He instinctly knows that the dance cannot progress any longer, that some floodgate has been breached and will not hold much longer, not long enough. To end the madness, he makes an offer, and weighs his life against those of the women and the town. He points the outlaws to a passage that does not exist and agrees to accompany them into the frozen nothingness.
III. Ride Into Oblivion
If Day of the Outlaw qualifies as an unusually bleak and austere Western, a culmination of the fifties trend away from the romantic towards the psychological, it is worth noting that it eventually, in its own circular fashion, arrives at one of its romantic myths. The traditional western hero, the gunfighter, through the use of righteous violence, clears the frontier for civilization. Yet, by the virtue of that very violence, he also ostracizes himself from civilization. So to fulfill his mythic function, the Western hero performs one final act: the gunfighter rides out. Once again, take the ending of The Searchers – John Wayne’s silhouette vanishes into the red-clay unknown, a door closing on him, forever sealing him off from the world of domesticity he restored. If we return to the first movement of this film, we find a clear example of the dilemma that occurs when, having performed his role in that myth, the gunfighter chooses not to ride out. As the town grows, a bitter gulf appears between Starrett and the coming settlers - they fear him for his tyrannous violence, he resents them for their unearned sense of entitlement. Yet, as the forces of lawlessness, once thought vanquished, return, Starrett is brutally reminded of what he once fought for. Likewise Bruhn, on the eve of his death, must come face to face with his legacy, embodied by a group of killers that he will be soon unable to control and who will soon be free to “rip this town apart”. Both men must assess their responsibility to civilization, that is, their role in the romantic Western myth. Both men decide that, for the greater good, the age of gunfighters and bandits must come to end. And in doing so, both men decide to finally ride out. Yet, in De Toth’s hand, the Western myth appears not as an act of romantic stoicism, but of pure fatalism. In order to separate themselves wholly from civilization, they have no choice but to ride into oblivion, taking the outlaws with them into a certain death.
If De Toth drains the mythic of its romantic proportions, it is perhaps not surprising that he drains his climax off all the suspense and sensationalism that would accompany it in a more typical Western. From the outset, both men are aware of the suicidal nature of the journey and both men resign themselves to their fate. We’re not watching expecting our hero(es) to find a way to escape; rather, the entire movement plays out like a cold fact, like some station of the cross that has been entirely predetermined and must play out as written. It’s constructed in a series of vignettes, linked together by a constant series of fade-in’s and out’s. Each vignette maintains the same sobering, quiet tempo, unchanging even as the violence escalates, so that each piece seems equalized on the same plateau of inevitability. The dominating visual motif is the all-encompassing white of the snow, always glaring blind-white, so that even the night scene barely register as different that those at the height of day. Likewise, as the movement progresses, Alexander Courage’s music recedes, so that by the end of the movement, the dominating sound is not the orchestra but the incessant hiss of the snowfall. The effect can be best described as drone-like, the entire segment characterized linked by a drowsiness that borders on the delirious.
If the first movement represents society cracking under its own repressed propensity for violence, and the second movement shows that society threatened as that violence breaks loose, the third movement follow that violence as it finally comes free of the shackles of civility. The passage undoubtedly owes something to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, namely in its re-appropriation of Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”, but it pushes into more unsettling waters. For here is the "Westward Journey" reimagined, not as a journey of expansion, of civilization establishing itself from the wilderness, but the "Westward Journey" as a degenerative journey back to man’s primal state. It’s a notion that, along with its hazy and disorientating tone/structure, anticipates many Westerns to come, right up to Dead Man and Blood Meridian. And once again, in some twist on the pacifist western, Starrett outlives them all without firing a shot or even raising a fist. The further they stray from civilization, the further they fall subject to the law of Nature, destroying each other, and ultimately, being consumed by the barren, unforgiving landscape itself.
Yet, by pure, reckless chance, Starrett somehow survives this regression back into savagery. He emerges from the lethal cold, and for a moment, we have what appears to be a happy ending. He first greets Gene (David Nelson), the blacksheep outcast of the killers, now seemingly accepted into the fold… young Ernine will have her husband, and Bitters may yet see that proliferation of family and community it has pinned its hopes on. On greeting him, Starrett takes away his gun – “Then you won't need this” – a seeming disavowal of the violence he was so eager to use at the outset of the film. Yet, has anything truthfully been resolved? The issue of the barb-wired fences has yet to be settled, and for Bitters to grow as a town, the issue must be raised again. Earlier in the film, when confronting him, Bruhn warns Mrs. Crane: “Mrs. Crane, when my men and I leave here, there will be a showdown and you will be a widow.” Starrett’s love affair with Helen Crane, not to mention the bruised egos resulting thereof, are still present in the community like some bandaged wound. If the whole proceeding is initiated by the refusal of a gunfighter to ride out - and then seemingly resolved when he finally decides to do just that – it’s an ironic twist of fate that Starrett ends up back in the community, perhaps right back at square one. As always, De Toth refuses to provide answers to those problems which can never be unequivocally answered, which is to say, human problems. All he can do is explore a crisis wherein his characters confront their human failings and the failings of those around them, wherein they must assess their responsibility to themselves and those around them… but where they’re ultimately left adrift and uncertain, with the audience only able to speculate whether they’ve found the moral strength to carve out their own parcel of peace and happiness.
When Day of the Outlaw opens, it’s with a wide panning shot, first of absolute wilderness, then rightwards towards the town in the distance. What we notice is how ill-fitting it is in its surroundings, encircled on all sides by the cruel and frozen wild, vulnerable to whatever threats, natural or otherwise, that may be hiding among the trees or mountains. It is only moments later that a similar shot unfurls, this time from within the town, panning right once again until Bitters is completely obliterated by white snow, grey skies and black streak of trees that dwarfs it in scale. This time, the shot is reframed in a window, we pan back and see Blaise Starrett, strapping on his gun, a moment before he marches downstairs to the gun battle he’s initiated. At that moment, it’s as if something violent and chaotic in that wilderness has leaped through that window, transferring into Starrett, the first signs of the contamination that is about engulf the town. At the end of the film, at his return, this same shot, perhaps the same take, replays itself. It’s an interesting choice… a more appropriate, conventional one would have been to reverse the shot, to emphasize, at its triumph, the town over the wilderness. Or use a different take, one where the sun has begun to shine, the snow to thaw, the first movement of the spring the town so desperately needs. But not here. By reusing that earlier shot, De Toth emphasizes that the town is still on the edge of wilderness, that the very elements that allowed this crisis to occur is still existent in the community. Even Courage’s music, ending on a note of pounding drums and blaring horns, seems use the very last seconds of the film, not to bask in the glory of Starrett’s heroic homecoming, but to remind us of the nightmare that has just occurred out in that forest. The storm has only passed, but the winter is still there. The day of the outlaw may be over, but it’ll be another day before one can tell if Bitters will flourish.