Cult Movie: Day Of The Outlaw as much noir as Western

Robert Ryan and Tina Louise in Day Of The Outlaw
Ralph McLean

LAST week this column was given over to Shane, an era-defining Western that's been freshly reissued on Blu-ray by Eureka DVD as part of their ongoing Masters Of Cinema series. This week it's the turn of another Western delivered as that genre began to fade from its most purple patch of the 1950s and another selection from that impressive Masters Of Cinema imprint.

Andre De Toth's Day Of The Outlaw (1959) may echo Shane in several ways – it's set in a small Wyoming town and deals initially with the issue of contested land for the resident homesteaders – but in reality it's a very different proposition to director George Stevens's more fondly remembered masterpiece.

It was shot on a relative shoestring, for a start. Director De Toth, a genuine maverick with credits that included the game-changing 3D extravaganza House Of Wax and the brilliant Sterling Hayden noir Crime Wave, is also less keen on the constraints imposed by the traditional Western.

That means we're given a mean and moody drama that could just as easily be described as classic film noir as it could a standard cowboy flick. Dark and fatalistic, it taps into something deeper than the standard Hollywood frontier drama and it's standing with the leading lights of the contemporary French New Wave, who lauded the film as a low-budget masterpiece, suggests we're talking about a minor-key classic here.

Deep in the frozen wilds of Wyoming we meet the brilliant Robert Ryan who plays Blaise Starrett (a surname that recalls the family at the centre of Shane, bizarrely), a strong-willed tough guy who's preparing to kill a fellow landowner by the name of Hal Crane (Alan Marshall) who he's having a beef with. Matters are complicated when he meets Crane's beautiful wife, Helen (Tina Louise) in the saloon. As they embark on an affair she begs the headstrong Starrett to spare her husband's life.

The sudden arrival of a gang of ruthless outlaws led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), who take over the saloon as they prepare to face off the arrival of the cavalry who are chasing them down after a robbery, leaves Starrett with bigger problems. As the tension rises and the weather outside gets progressively worse he must defend the kidnapped townsfolk and attempt to redeem his love for the landowner's wife.

De Toth shoots all this slow-burning drama with a precision and a sense of growing dread that feels as if it might be more at home in a classic 1940s gangster epic – no bad thing. Watching the villains holed up with the locals in the bar as time runs slowly out makes for genuinely enthralling viewing.

Ryan is superb as the no-nonsense hard man with mixed emotions and singer and actor Ives is equally impressive. As you might expect, however, little is as it first seems and personalities change like the weather outside.

Eureka's extras include an impressive 32-page booklet and a video interview with film-maker Bertrand Tavernier that puts De Toth's creation into historical context.

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