(Welcome to Videodrome. A monthly column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema — from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)
Sometime around college, I heard a quote attributed to Leo Tolstoy that holds “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The maxim stuck with me, and is particularly apt when describing André de Toth’s massively underrated 1959 western film Day of the Outlaw. Starring Robert Ryan and an against-type Burl Ives (he’s the stranger), de Toth’s film ranks as one of the finest psychological westerns ever committed to celluloid.
Our hero is Ryan’s Blaise Starrett, who we find in the film’s opening positively seething with rage towards local rancher Hal Crane, who has erected a barbed wire fence on the open range. Starrett is no white-hatted keeper of ranch virtue, though, as we quickly learn that his real motivations lie with Crane’s wife Helen (a stunning Tina Louise half a decade before the world would know her as Gilligan’s Ginger). “A wire fence is a poor excuse to make a widow out of Crane’s wife,” says Starrett’s drunkard partner Dan in this opening exchange, laying plain the steel-hard tension that dominates the film’s first act.
This opening sequence, and most all of the film’s exteriors, are set against a stark and breathtaking backdrop of crippling snow across a western mountain range. In fact, in a film chock full of ambivalent heroes and villains, the one incontrovertible nemesis in de Toth’s world might well be this relentless winter–one that’s “colder and harder than most,” as one saloon denizen puts it. The hopeless and ominous tone is heightened throughout by Alexander Courage’s booming score, driven as it is by belching lower-register horns and icy woodwinds.
Just as tensions hit a breaking point (with guns drawn, no less) in the old fashioned love triangle of Starrett, Crane, and Helen, de Toth changes course abruptly and introduces the stranger— Burl Ives’ Jack Bruhn, a disgraced army captain with a band of bottom-rung misfits in tow. Braun and his gang are on the run from the Calvary, and he makes it known immediately that his is the law of the land–wherever he is and for however long he chooses to be there. In his best stentorian balladeer bellow, Ives introduces his band of dead-eyed marauders thusly:
“Ace here — he derives pleasure out of hurting people. Tex — rile him and you’re gonna hear some screaming in this town today. Denver — half Cheyenne. He hate white man, but he doesn’t feel half so badly about white women. Boss — bones covered with dirty skin, but even half-drunk he’s the fastest draw in Wyoming territory.”