Day Of The Outlaw

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Andre DeToth’s masterpiece of the Western genre, Day Of The Outlaw (1959), is one of the most influential and important films of its genre ever made. From Il grande silenzio (1968) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) to The Hateful Eight (2015), Day Of The Outlaw has been imitated, alluded too, and become an essential cinematographic text that is almost ubiquitous with the Western film itself. Yet, for a long time, Day Of The Outlaw was not a part of the popular canon of Westerns. Its moment came later than most, arriving at a time when audiences had finally caught up with the stark, desperate vision of Andre DeToth.

Relatively early on in Day Of The Outlaw is a fist fight between the anti-hero Robert Ryan and the primitively brutal henchman Jack Lambert. Out in the snow, set in a vastness enclosed by a circle of mountains, these two stalwart veterans of the Western slug it out. It’s a long, grueling fight devoid of the romanticism of The Big Country‘s (1958) famous battle till dawn between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. The Big Country propped up a myth of the American West only for Day Of The Outlaw to pull it asunder.

The threat of violence, specifically sexual violence, hangs over the remote hamlet in Day Of The Outlaw. Burl Ives’ gang of ruffians come into town like an occupying force that is forever teetering on the edge of civilization; the slightest misstep and rape, murder, and utter destruction await. Day Of The Outlaw dispells the grandiose myth making of The Wild One (1953), reframing the teenaged biker gang as a posse of rapists and murderers beyond any real control.

Andre DeToth pulls back the curtain on the romantic visions of violence and fetishized objects and bodies to confront the spectator with a myth of reality. Andre DeToth does not entirely discard the myths of the Western, but supplants the romantic view of the West with one closer to reality than Anthony Mann or Bud Boetticher ever conjured up. Day Of The Outlaw is the Western myth made in the wake of the Korean War and in anticipation of the Vietnam War.

Visually, DeToth uses the snowy landscape to re-contextualize the Western lexicon of images in much the same way that Nicholas Ray did to subvert Film Noir in On Dangerous Ground (1951). Both films star Robert Ryan as a hero who acts more like a villain and whose moral grey area juxtaposes the high contrast of the exterior visuals. But DeToth goes further in terms of complicating the morality of every character in Day Of The Outlaw, dispensing with the noble figure of Ida Lupino in Ray’s film.

When Ryan finally takes real action against the occupying forces it’s on the trail out of town. Now, in this pivotal moment, Ryan lives in a high contrast space of black and white which reflects the moral shift in his character. The ride out into the snow removes Ryan from the town, from witnesses. Here, where there is no one who will survive to tell the tale but Ryan, Day Of The Outlaw begins to embrace, though only slightly, the romantic impulses of the Western that make it America’s greatest mythologizing instrument.

Day Of The Outlaw is the essential text of the Western genre for the revisionist movement that would begin mid-way through the following decade. It’s impossible to study the history of cinema and ignore the impact of Day Of The Outlaw. Like Citizen Kane (1941) or Sherlock Jr. (1924), Day Of The Outlaw is an immeasurably essential film to American cinema and the cinemas of the world.