Tuesday, 8 December 2015

day of the outlaw

day of the outlaw is a minimalist western that grabs you in the first ten minutes and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.

the film is set in a small, snow-covered town in the middle of nowhere made up of a small group of farmers who after years of toil are finally starting to prosper. then there’s robert ryan’s character, blaise starrett, a self appointed lawman without a badge who took it upon himself to protect the town and clear out all the bad men. except the townsfolk don’t feel he’s necessary anymore and they want him out.

the best way to describe the plot of the film is to tell you what happens in a fairly pivotal scene. it’s early on in the film but some of the tension may be diluted if you know what’s going to happen, so spoiler warning.

starrett is facing three of the townsfolk in the bar. they’re all armed. he tells his friend to roll a bottle along the bar, and when the bottle hits the floor they draw. the bottle rolls, and then just as it’s about to reach the end of the bar the door opens and in walks captain bruhn (burl ives) and his band of outlaws. it’s one of the most tense moments i’ve ever seen in a film and it’s an amazing set-up.

bruhn and his men take the town hostage, but he makes a promise that no one will get hurt. the problem is bruhn is dying so the townsfolk not only have to figure out how to survive, they have to keep bruhn alive too otherwise his men will be out of control.

no one plays world-weary gunfighter like robert ryan, and here he’s on top form. stripped of his gun early on, he has to figure out how to outwit bruhn whilst also keeping the townsfolk from getting themselves killed. in a way, this film is as much a deconstructive character study of the gunfighter archetype as it is a true western. starrett begins the film as someone with no place in the world and in the end he’s no better than bruhn’s men. like all the men in the film, starrett has to decide whether to evolve or die and seeing ryan play this out is fascinating.

evolution is a theme that plays throughout the story. there is a real sense of men as animals; that they can’t be left alone with the women for more than five seconds without forcing themselves on them. i found the treatment of the female characters in day of the outlaw troubling at first, as they almost immediately become commodity rather than people – something the men in the town must protect and that the outlaws consider playthings. there is a particularly uncomfortable bar scene in which the women are forced to dance with the outlaws and things get out of hand rather quickly. but at the same time, the men in the film come off way worse than the women. there is a sense that all men, even the good ones, are barely-evolved beasts and that this small town would not be prospering if not for the more civilised women. the script certainly considers the women equals – they all have names and they talk to each other about things other than men. while it’s uncomfortable to watch this is ultimately a film about failed masculinity more than it is about women being out of place in the world. by the end, it’s the men who are out of place and there’s a sense that they always were.

i don’t want to spoil the final act of the film because part of the enjoyment comes from seeing how starrett outwits the outlaws, but i guarantee it doesn't end the way you expect it to. it’s one of the greatest final showdowns i’ve seen in a western and yet it’s completely understated.

the blu-ray of day of the outlaw looks great and though it's short on extras this is worth checking out just to own the film. day of the outlaw is a classic example of a filmmaker pushing the boundaries of a genre and doing something truly different. the entire history of the western genre is played out then subverted in day of the outlaw and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone.

day of the outlaw is available now on dual format blu-ray from eureka entertainment

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