As Quentin Tarantino's newest film The Hateful Eight hits cinemas, it is timely that another Western set on the snowbound plains is granted a re-release. As part of Eureka's Masters of Cinema series comes Day of the Outlaw, a bleak, slow-burning drama that challenges the audience with the starkness of its tone and imagery.
Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) is a rough and tough cowboy with a strong objection to farmers fencing off their land and effectively restricting the roaming cattle-hand. Riding into a small homestead to confront one such farmer, he encounters the man's wife Helen Crane (Tina Louise) with whom he has a complicated history. Their melodrama is put on hold with the arrival of a band of unpleasant outlaws barely held in check by their wounded leader Captain Bruhn (Burt Ives).
What initially meanders slower than a weary-legged horse becomes an interesting and complex drama as prior allegiances are tested and new loyalties are forged and broken. Sides are chosen with the hope of maximising survival, and the central Starrett develops from being the initial antagonist to perhaps the only hope of salvation the homesteaders have.
The performances are what you would expect from a film of this period and are good throughout, but it is the direction that really impresses. Andre De Toth draws you into the action through subtle, almost casual use of angles, lingering shots that add to the awkwardness and discomfort felt by many of the characters and in many of their exchanges. Rarely is a film so wonderfully bleak and intentionally lifeless as Day of the Outlaw and it is significant that De Toth receives a dedication on both Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained.
Even if you're a fan of the Western, Day of the Outlaw may have slipped by but it is a film worth seeking out. Brooding, malevolent and stunningly beautiful, it is a perfect example how to create style and substance from the simplest of sources.
DAY OF THE OUTLAW / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ANDRE DE TOTH / SCREENPLAY: PHILIP YORDAN / STARRING: ROBERT RYAN, BURT IVES, TINA LOUISE, ALAN MARSHAL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW