12 August 2008

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (Dir. Andre De Toth, 1959, US) - An Influential, Low Budget Western

The Western genre underwent a radical transformation after the fall out of World War II as many of the films that were released in the post war context shared a considerably darker psychological tone with a brutally open examination of violence. Though violence was a thematic motif that greatly interested most of the post war American genre filmmakers like Anthony Mann and John Ford, it perhaps seemed to define the work of Andre De Toth, a seriously underrated immigrant filmmaker who like his closest contemporary, Samuel Fuller, worked on the edges of mainstream cinema, having to deal with the constraints of low budgets and genre conventions so that he could say something genuinely powerful about the complexity of the male psyche.

It is somewhat of an understatement to suggest Andre De Toth is a forgotten filmmaker who was overshadowed by his peers, but the availability of his films on DVD has contributed enormously to a critical reappraisal of his work. Martin Scorsese has been a long time champion of his work, and he even underlined his significance as a key American filmmaker in a documentary he made in the 90s, making reference to ‘Crimewave’, a low budget crime noir starring the intimidating, Sterling Hayden as a persecuting police detective.

Released in 1959, ‘Day of the Outlaw’ was the last western Andre De Toth directed, and it was one of the first westerns to have been shot against an alternate landscape of winter, snow and mountains, inhospitable terrain that was directly oppositional to the iconography of the genre. The influence on later revisionist westerns like ‘Unforgiven’, ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ and ‘The Big Silence’ can be traced back to De Toth’s unconventional use of the winter landscape as a device used to externalise the apathetic and clinical emotions of characters like Blaise Starrett, an enigmatic outlaw turned settler played by the ever dependable Robert Ryan.

Along with the likes of Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan was one of the finest character actors to have emerged out of the studio system, demonstrating an unparalleled consistency in his repeated pursuit of embittered male characters who were troubled by post war anxieties like violence, sexuality, loneliness and belonging. His demeanour in most of the films he appeared overflowed with a raw, uncontrollable anger that was highly unpredictable and deeply empathetic. Even in supposedly quieter moments, Robert Ryan’s incredibly honest anger was unmistakably present in the tone of his delivery, and he rarely took on a role that presented him in a favourable light. Though he did play a lot of villains, he nevertheless, relished male characters who were trying to fit into society, but without having to revert to some kind of glib and sentimental desire for redemption. The moral ambiguity he invests in the character of Blaise Starrett foreshadows Eastwood’s pared down, minimalist approach to the notorious outlaw and gunfighter, William Munny, in ‘Unforgiven’.

Made towards the end of the 50s, ‘Day of the Outlaw’ is highly unusual in the way it confronts and represents violence, transforming the central protagonist into a pacifist who in turn learns to adopt an ideology of non-violence when faced with the problem of a band of vicious outlaws who lay siege to the town. De Toth was the kind of filmmaker who revelled in having to work under budget constraints, and the minimalist style evident throughout came directly out of necessity and not creativity. The aesthetic decision to shoot the film in black and white was a deliberate one, and the stark winter landscape is evocatively captured in dazzling monochrome cinematography that seems to transcend the budget limitations with great confidence.

Burl Ives plays Jack Bruhn, the gentlest and most benign of outlaws to have appeared in a Hollywood western. Bruhn like Ethan Edwards in ‘The Searchers’ is a man who has absconded from the cavalry for having committed war crimes in the form of a massacre, but he is a man who is haunted by the aura of death. Bruhn’s men express an unhealthy disdain for law and order, victimising the women of the town with the constant threat of rape. The closest De Toth comes to realising the worst fears of the town is the sequence in which the women are forced to dance with the outlaws, molesting and torturing them with an immunity that is strangely provocative and immoral.

In the final sequence, Blaise leads the outlaws out of the village and into the throes of an uncontainable and fiercely indiscriminate force of nature; the cold, starkness of the wild that simply overwhelms each of the men. Blaise never resorts to violence, relying on guile to outwit the outlaws, and inadvertently advocating an ideologically oppositional message of non-violence that could only have been smuggled into a low budget western aimed at a B movie audience. ‘Day of the Outlaw’ is a magnificent achievement and its influence on the genre is only just becoming recognised by critics and audiences alike.

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