I’m currently working on an essay exploring the André De Toth western Day of the Outlaw (1959) for The Dark Pages, but since that essay can’t include everything I want to say, I’m sharing this little teaser with you today, something that probably won’t make it into print due to the essay's length. But I think it's pretty cool, not because I wrote it, but because De Toth and cinematographer Russell Harlan constructed the shot below so well.
The movie begins with a dispute between cattleman Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and a local farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshall). The actual dispute is over a fence, but what these guys are really getting heated up over is the fact that they both love the same woman, Helen (Tina Louise). The bigger problem is that Helen is married to Crane, but is in love with Blaise. Or is she?
None of this matters when a group of outlaws led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) rides up and holds the entire town hostage. While Blaise and Crane put their dispute on hold, Bruhn’s men have ridden hard through the Wyoming snow after a successful bank heist and want only two things: liquor and women. Yet Bruhn will allow them neither.
This is one of my favorite shots from the film. It’s not really giving anything away, but I can tell you that one of the townspeople, having had enough of being held captive, makes a run for it and loses to one of Bruhn’s men, who looks on while Blaise and his foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) carry off the body. They’re clustered on the right side of the frame, and you can tell that Bruhn’s man and Blaise are staring each other down, anticipating a possible future encounter that may not turn out so well for one of them.
On the left side, we have a group of townspeople who heard the shot and came running out to see if their friend made it. Ironically they’re not clustered, but rather separated (not by social distancing, mind you) and surrounded by acres of open snow, for all the good it will do them. Despite the wide open landscape, they’re not going anywhere as long as Bruhn’s man - a crack shot - can pick them off at ease. You can even see a smile on the killer's face.
This one shot expresses the frustration of the townspeople, the arrogance of the gunman, and the patient, yet challenging look of Blaise. The mountain range sees it all and so do we. It's a tremendous shot, and it's far from the only one in the film.
I hope you’ll want to read more of my thoughts on Day of the Outlaw as well as work from the other writers who contribute to The Dark Pages. The July/August issue is scheduled to be available in print and digital editions on August 19. You can subscribe or request a sample issue right here.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out Day of the Outlaw on the Criterion Channel as part of their Western Noir showcase. The film is also available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (Region A) and Masters of Cinema (Region B).