THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (Security/UA, 1959)


DIRECTOR: Andre deToth; PRODUCER: Sidney Harmon; WRITER: Philip Yordan from novel by Lee E. Wells; CINEMATOGRAPHY: Russell Harlan

CAST: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshal, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Nehemiah Persoff, Jack Lambert, Frank DeKova, Lance Fuller, Elisha Cook, Jr., Dabbs Greer, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Helen Westcott, Donald Elson, Robert Cornthwaite, Michael McGreevey, George Ross, William Schallert, Arthur Space, Jack Woody, Paul Wexler

Is there any doubt what this poster is selling?  It was a case of false advertising since nothing remotely approaching this scene appeared in the film.  Maybe it was left over from the previous year's steamy GOD'S LITTLE ACRE, which also starred Ryan and Louise, and was made by the same production company that made DAY OF THE OUTLAW.

The film has three assets: 1). Robert Ryan; 2). Burl Ives; and 3). Russell Harlan.  Unfortunately, the plot isn't one of them.

The story begins as a conventional range land conflict between ranchers and homesteaders. There is, however, another complication.

Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan):  "I'm through being reasonable. I told Crane what would happen if he strung that wire."

Dan (Nehemiah Persoff):  "Blaise, we've pulled over some hard hills together, and I've rode behind you all the way. But a wire fence is a poor excuse to make a widow out of Crane's wife. What have you been thinking about all winter -- Crane's barb wire fence, or Crane's pretty wife, Helen?"

Helen Crane (Louise) is the woman that Starrett loved, but he let her get away.  And now she is married to Hal Crane (Marshal), the leader of the homesteaders.

Helen has just told Blaise that she no longer loves him.  I don't know if I believe her or not.  I know Blaise doesn't.

It could have been a Luke Short story, something like Ride the Man Down, for example, one of the many range land conflict stories he wrote or maybe Ernest Haycox; Man in the Saddle comes to mind.  It is set in the aptly named village of Bitters, Wyoming.  Early on, rancher Blaise Starrett (Ryan) lectures the homesteaders about what he and his partner, Dan (Persoff), had to do twenty years earlier in order to make the valley a safe place to live in and how the homesteaders think that they can now move in, fence off the range, and take away what rightfully belongs to the cattlemen.

"You got a big mouth, farmer. You got big eyes, too. You came here a year ago in your broken down wagon looking for a choice spot to settle and you think you found it. But you never stopped to think what made it such a good place. When Dan and I came here, Bitters was a nesting place for every thief and killer in the territory. A man's life wasn't worth the price of a bullet. No woman was safe on the streets, let alone in a lonely farmhouse. It took more than a big mouth to get rid of the lice who infested every bend of the road you ride so safely on. I'm not saying Dan and I did it alone, but we did more than our share. We hunted them down in the freezing cold while you sat back in the East hugging your pot-bellied stove. Nobody thanked us. Nobody paid us. We did it because we felt we belonged. We earned the right to belong. And all you've done is ride in here and put down your stinking boots. And now you tell us that you belong and we don't. Mr. Crane, you said you'd fight to keep what you want. Well, I've been doing that for twenty years and I intend to keep doing it, and no pig-belly farmer is going to stop me!" -- Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan)

It is the kind of declaration that the rancher Ryker could have made in SHANE (Paramount, 1953)In fact, he did.  Since that story was also about a rancher-homesteader conflict in Wyoming, DAY OF THE OUTLAW, up to this point, might have been written by Jack Schaefer.

Starrett confronts the homesteaders
However, the plot makes a complete turnaround at about the twenty-minute mark of this ninety-minute movie.  It occurs when the showdown between Starrett and the homesteaders is interrupted by the appearance of a gang of seven outlaws (naturally; gangs nearly always consisted of seven members) led by a former army officer named Jack Bruhn (Ives).  The gang is being pursued by the cavalry and is looking for a place to rest.  Only three members of the gang possess any redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The other four are unredeemable.  These four are not only looking for a place to rest, but are also seeking liquor and female companionship, probably in that order.

With the appearance of the outlaws, the rancher-homesteader conflict not only becomes secondary to the plot, it becomes completely meaningless and almost non-existent.  Suddenly it becomes a conflict between the community (rancher and homesteaders) and a  band of murderous outlaws. 

Rancher Starrett finds himself in the same position that he was in twenty years ago.  He must once again find some means of ridding the community of forces that might very well destroy it.  Complicating matters is the fact that he must depend on the co-operation of Captain Bruhn in order to carry out his mission, for it is only the Captain's iron hand of discipline that keeps four of the band -- Tex (Lambert), Pace (Fuller), Denver (DeKova), and Vause (Wexler) -- from going on a murderous rampage and having their way with the four women in the town.  Only the oldest gang member, Shorty (Woody), and the youngest, Gene (David Nelson), can be trusted to act in anything approaching a civil manner.  However, Captain Bruhn has been badly wounded and there is no medical doctor in the community, only a veterinarian (Greer) who is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the Captain survives.

three bad men (L - R): Tex (Jack Lambert), Captain Bruhn (Burl Ives) and Pace (Lance Fuller)

Despite the abrupt change in the storyline, which can be startling and somewhat disconcerting, this is still a conventional Western. It just happens to have two separate and distinct conventional plots -- one that accounts for the first twenty minutes and one that takes over for the remaining seventy minutes. In that sense, it is, of course, unconventional.

Robert Ryan broke into films in 1940, but it took almost a decade before anybody noticed. His breakthrough role came as an anti-Semitic soldier in CROSSFIRE (RKO, 1947). For his performance, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It was his only nomination.

Under contract to RKO, Ryan appeared in a number of Westerns, primarily in supporting roles. Released a few months before CROSSFIRE was TRAIL STREET (RKO), which found Ryan as the bad man who attempts to prevent Bat Masterson's (Randolph Scott) efforts to tame Liberal, Kansas. A year later, in RETURN OF THE BAD MEN (RKO), U.S. marshal Scott takes on what seemed to be every desperado that ever rode the outlaw trail in the Old West. Ryan received second billing as "The Sundance Kid."

In 1949, RKO finally saw fit to cast Ryan in a starring role -- and it was a good one. THE SET-UP is one of the best films about professional boxing ever produced. In no small part, that was due to Ryan's performance as a washed-up fighter. Adding to the authenticity of the film was the fact that Ryan had been a champion boxer during his college years.

Ryan's first starring role in a Western occurred in BEST OF THE BADMEN (1951), the third RKO production to feature an all-star line-up of Western desperadoes. However, it was in supporting roles that Ryan seemed to do his best work in Westerns. Among the best examples are his villainous roles in THE NAKED SPUR (MGM, 1953) and, if we can count it as a Western, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (MGM, 1955). In 1956, he got to play a good Westerner, a lawman, in THE PROUD ONES (Fox).

After DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), he gave outstanding performances in a number of superior Westerns. The three that stand out are: THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia, 1966), HOUR OF THE GUN (Mirisch/UA, 1967) and THE WILD BUNCH (WB, 1969).

Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, "[Ryan] was known for his villains, and it is the complexity of these characters, their emotional and psychological kinks, that elevated even his lesser roles." I would say that sounds just about right.

Captain Bruhn and Blaise Starrett, adversaries or co-conspirators?  Gang member, Gene (David Nelson), is in the background.

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives gained prominence as a singer, specializing in folk ballads, before he became an actor. Moreover, even after he made it as an actor he continued to pursue a singing career that resulted in several hit records.
Four of Ives' first five screen roles were in Westerns. His debut was as a singing cowboy in SMOKY (Fox, 1946), followed by roles in GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING (Fox, 1948), STATION WEST (RKO, 1948), and SIERRA (UI, 1950).  For his role in THE BIG COUNTRY (UA, 1958), a big-budget Western directed by William Wyler, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. It was the only nomination of his career. In that same year he brought one of his defining roles to the big screen, one that he had originated on Broadway, that being "Big Daddy" Pollitt in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (MGM).

After DAY OF THE OUTLAW the following year, Ives appeared in only one other Western, THE MCMASTERS (1970).

At 6'1" and in the neighborhood of 300 lbs, Ives was an imposing physical presence and intimidating personality on the screen. And this is much in evidence in DAY OF THE OUTLAW. He and Ryan (and Russell Harlan) saved the film. Brian Garfield wrote in Western Films: A Complete Guide that "Ryan and Ives are utterly superb."

Tina Louise had been acting on TV for a couple of years and had appeared in a Broadway play when she made her movie debut in GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (Security/UA, 1958). The controversial movie was based on an even more controversial Erskine Caldwell novel that had been published twenty-five years earlier. It was controversial for both its sexual content and its sympathy for striking textile workers in the South during the Great Depression.
In the film, Louise was perfectly cast as Robert Ryan's sexy, sultry daughter-in-law. It was an auspicious beginning. She won a Golden Globe for "most promising newcomer" and it seemed that the sky was the limit for the red-haired, green-eyed beauty. However, something happened on the way to Gilligan's Island.

She was a very busy actress the following year, appearing in three films, all Westerns. First to be released was a contemporary Western, THE TRAP (Paramount), followed by THE HANGMAN (Paramount), and then DAY OF THE OUTLAW.

I've never seen THE TRAP, and though I have seen THE HANGMAN, I don't remember enough about it to pass judgment. But I believe that she was miscast in DAY OF THE OUTLAW, and her performance indicates that she may have known that, too. There is no way that she is believable as a homesteader's wife. She appeared to be far too glamorous to have spent the preceding year on a homestead. At any rate, once the film's plot abruptly changed her role was greatly diminished.

After such a promising start as a serious actress, and with her movie career stalled, she became a pop culture icon on one of the silliest sitcoms ever to see the light of day. As movie star Ginger Grant, she became a household name as one of the people stranded on Gilligan's Island. However, not only was Ginger Grant, fictional movie star, stranded on the island, so was Tina Louise, actress. She would never again be taken seriously as an actress.

Alan Marshal (one l), as Hal Crane the leader of the homesteaders, is even more miscast than Tina Louise. He doesn't look like a homesteader; he doesn't sound like a homesteader; and he certainly doesn't dress like a homesteader. He could have been a banker, but never a farmer.

Venetia Stevenson is the town's youngest female. She is attracted to Gene, the youngest and most decent member of the outlaw gang, who is portrayed by David Nelson. The attraction is mutual. The couple is attractive. Unfortunately, neither was much of an actor despite the fact that both grew up in show business families. Nelson, of course, was a featured member of the TV cast in the long-running (fifteen years) sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, in which he co-starred with his father, mother, and brother. However, I never thought he, or brother Ricky, ever looked comfortable in front of the camera. (The same year that David was in DAY OF THE OUTLAW, Ricky had an important role in a bigger budget, more prestigious Western: RIO BRAVO [WB, 1959]. But neither film did anything for either brother's acting career.)

David Nelson and Venetia Stevenson

Two very good actors, Nehemiah Persoff and Elisha Cook, are wasted in the film. Persoff even got special billing in the opening credits ('and as Dan, Nehemiah Persoff'). He doesn't have much to do during the rancher v. homesteader portion of the film and nothing once the outlaws appear on the scene. Cook was even more wasted. He hardly makes an appearance and has practically no dialogue. Maybe his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Jack Lambert, one of those veteran characters with a familiar face that people have a time putting a name to, gives the best and most believable performance of any of the supporting players. With a face that only a mother could love, Lambert, as the lowdown, meanest of a lowdown, mean bunch, gives what is perhaps the best performance of his career.

Tex (Lambert) has designs on Helen (Louise).  Only Captain Bruhn's (Ives) iron hand of discipline (holding a gun) prevents him from exercising them.

In the late '40's, writer Philip Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon created a film production company which they named Security Pictures.  Yordan usually provided the scripts for their films while Harmon was the producer of record.  However, Yordan was nearly always involved as a producer as well, but in an uncredited capacity.  

In the '50's the duo produced three movies starring Robert Ryan.  The first was MEN IN WAR (1957), a Korean War drama directed by Anthony Mann that co-starred Aldo Ray, with Nehemiah Persoff in a supporting role.  Ben Maddow, who had been blacklisted during the communist witch-hunt, wrote the script.  The writer of record was Philip Yordan, who fronted for Maddow on more than one occasion.  GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958), also directed by Mann, once again featured Aldo Ray in a co-starring role, and, as earlier mentioned, provided Tina Louise with her screen debut.  Maddow wrote this script as well, with Yordan fronting and receiving the credit.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW was the third Security production with Robert Ryan in the lead role.
This time Yordan wrote the screenplay.  Unfortunately, it isn't nearly as good as the Maddow scripts in the other two films.  That is not to say that Yordan wasn't a talented writer.  He was nominated for Academy Awards on three occasions, wining one award.  His first nomination was for his screenplay for DILLINGER (King/Monogram, 1945), followed by a nomination for best screenplay for DETECTIVE STORY (Paramount, 1951).  He won the award for best story for BROKEN LANCE (Fox, 1954).

Andre deToth, the one-eyed native of Hungary, was best known for his direction of the  horror classic, HOUSE OF WAX (WB, 1953), which most critics consider to be the best 3-D movie ever produced.  Ironically, because of his lack of depth perception, the director was never able to enjoy the result of his efforts.  But he also directed Westerns.

RAMROD (Paramount, 1947), starring Joel McCrea and deToth's wife at the time, Veronica Lake, brought the director his first good critical reviews.  In the early '50's, Randolph Scott starred in twelve Westerns.  DeToth directed half of them.  They were not the best Scott vehicles ever produced, but neither were they the worst either.  For the most part, they were enjoyable films. My personal favorite in the group is the initial film, MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951).  

DAY OF THE OUTLAW was his final Western and one of his last feature films.  It was not a bad finish.

Russell Harlan began his career as a cinematographer in 1937 working for producer Harry "Pop" Sherman on the Hopalong Cassidy B-Westerns.  B-Westerns they may have been, and there may have been better ones, but none were as beautifully photographed as this series.  Harlan collaborated with director Lesley Selander on more than thirty films, most of them in the Hoppy series. 

When Sherman sold the Hoppy enterprise to the series star, William Boyd, and went out of the B-Western business, he set about to film two Westerns, both starring Joel McCrea.  The first was the aforementioned RAMROD (1947), directed by deToth and co-starring Veronica Lake, who was the director's wife at the time.  A year later Sherman produced FOUR FACES WEST (UA), co-starring Charles Bickford and Frances Dee (Mrs. Joel McCrea).  Both are extremely well made and enjoyable little films that some (including yours truly) consider to be classics.  Both benefit from the excellent black-and-white photography provided by Russell Harlan.

Though he never won, he was nominated six times for an Academy Award -- once for two films in the same year:

THE BIG SKY (RKO, 1952), directed by Howard Hawks
HATARI! (Paramount, 1962), directed by Howard Hawks
HAWAII (Mirisch/UA, 1966)  

Among his other notable films are two other Westerns directed by Howard Hawks:
RED RIVER (UA, 1948)

DAY OF THE OUTLAW supposedly takes place in Wyoming, but was filmed in the mountains of Oregon.  Not only that, it was filmed in late November and early December and that meant snow -- a lot of snow -- which was an important element of the plot.  In fact, without the snow the story would have had to be rewritten.

Harlan's black-and-white photography took full advantage of the snow, the snow-capped mountains, the bleak, overcast weather, and the authentically designed town set.  Here are some examples:



DAY OF THE OUTLAW will never be considered a classic Western, but the performances of Ryan and Ives and Harlan's photography make it worthwhile viewing.

the writer

the director

the cinematographer




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