Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 153: Day of the Outlaw (1959)
Though many consider this a great Western and one of director Andre De Toth’s best, I find it to be one of his most flawed films. Though not known for his subtlety, De Toth had a more nuanced touch than a filmmaker like Samuel Fuller. And if the latter’s name had been on this movie, I wouldn’t have questioned it for a moment. The film has a bare, primitive quality (a good thing) but is filled with inconsistencies and poorly written characters. Here are some additional thoughts, spoilers ahead for those who have not seen it yet:
1. Unlike his collaborations with Randolph Scott, De Toth is working with a very different protagonist here and in relation, a different dynamic between hero and villain. When Robert Ryan and Burl Ives reach some kind of mutual respect early on, it’s really a bond between bad men. This is an interesting concept, one that could have played out with the same complexity as Scott and Richard Boone’s relationship in Boetticher’s The Tall T. Unfortunately, the writer and director do not give it enough attention, getting lost in the film’s subplots. Simplicity might be the key to most great Westerns, a quality exemplified in that Boetticher masterpiece.
2. The film’s strongest part is the journey through the mountains and I think it’s a narrative mistake that this only begins in the last third of the picture. If I could travel back in time and rewrite the screenplay, I’d place their departure at the end of act one and conclude act two with the discovery that Ryan, with Burl’s approval, has led them all to their deaths. As it is, the most exciting section of the movie is truncated. This leads to some hurried and inexplicable decisions by the characters.
3. Here are some questions and issues I had with the logic of this story: Why does Burl sacrifice his men when he knows it’s a suicide mission? His relationship with his group of outlaws is never clear and, in my opinion, it’s a weak aspect of the narrative. During the journey, the outlaws refuse stop when Ives falls off his horse but they have no issue stopping moments later to bury him and the man they just killed for resisting? This is the kind of writing I detest. It makes no logical sense and shows the writer/filmmakers’ lack of discipline. Moments later, I was confused again. Why do these men start killing their partners? It can’t be for the extra horses because they don’t use them. It can’t be for supplies because there is no mention of scarcity. Is it just because they’re greedy? If so, the reason is not well-established in these underdeveloped, cartoonish villains. Finally, are we really to believe that the last living bad guy can’t shoot his rifle because of frozen hands when there’s no visible sign of the cold on his body? Why is his partner frozen solid and he doesn’t even have frost on his beard or gloves? This is the kind of failure of detail that you don’t often see in De Doth’s work but it’s on full display here. I found the climax to not only be ineffective but just plain silly.
It’s not well-written and it’s not even a well-edited movie, often featuring some very bizarre cuts such as when he suddenly shows Ryan and the town women having a pleasant time in the middle of this terrible situation. I know I’m in the minority on this one but for this Western filmmaker and fan, Day of the Outlaw is mediocre at best.
Watched on Tubi.