Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Dir: André De Toth - Cast: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshall, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Nehemiah Persoff, Jack lambert, Frank DeKova, Elisha Cook Jr.

An odd and fascinating western, set in the snow. For this reason it's often mentioned (along with William Wyler's Blood on the Moon) as one of the Hollywood westerns serving as a source of inspiration for Sergio Corbucci's famous The Great Silence. Corbucci most probably knew it, but fans of spaghetti westerns will notice that the storyline is actually closer to another spaghetti western set in the snow, Quanto Costa Morire.

Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his gang of outlaws take over a community high up in the mountains. The army is on their trail and will arrive in town once the roads will be passable again. While Bruhn, mortally wounded, tries to keep his men from raping the four women of the town, Blaise Starrett, a stubborn, frustrated cowboy tries to find a way out of the deadlock. Starrett has all kind of troubles of his own: he still has feelings for an old flame who's now married to his biggest enemy in a local conflict and the woman promises to renew the love affair if Starrett won't kill her husband. With two communities trapped (the town by the outlaws, the outlaws by the army) Starrett finally decides to agree to Bruhn's demand to lead the outlaws over the mountains to safety. 

Knowing De Toth's Hungarian background, it's understandable that some have interpreted this as an allegorical comment on the Russian invasion in Hungary, in '56.  Stark, moody and suspenseful, helped immensely by Russell Harlan's austere cinematography. There's a bizarre, unintentionally funny scene when the gang members get the chance to dance with the women, and throw them around like puppets. I guess this scene was meant to be frightening, and probably was to viewers in the late fifties, but now it's rather incredible, almost laughable. The finale, with Starrett and the outlaws facing each other as well as the elements, is as gripping as can be in its ice-cold intensity.  

I watched a copy of a screening on German television and it looked uncut. I remember this film was released in the UK a while ago, and it would be interesting to know if any cuts were made. There's no horse-tripping in the classical sense, but some scenes with horses trying to walk in the snow really make you feel awkward. In one gruesome scene a horse is finished because it fell and broke a leg.


  1. I'm noticing that today's western writers tend often to set their stories in winter snow. Hollywood westerns give the impression that the West was all warm and sunny. Day of the Outlaw is a visually fascinating exception.


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