About 500 Wild West movies were released during the 1950s. Comic books such as All-Star Western, Western Comics and Kid Colt Outlaw drove superheroes off the magazine racks. On TV, The Lone Ranger became ABC’s first true hit, while Gunsmoke would become one of the USA’s biggest television hits.
In that context, it’s perhaps unsurprising how quickly Day of the Outlaw – originally released in 1959 and made available for the first time on Blu-Ray this week – jumps into its time and place. There are no grand shots of Monument Valley or horsemen tearing across the dusty plains. That’s partly because of the film’s limited budget (a mere $400,000), but the effect is to produce a sombre view of the Old West, more in line with the revisionist Westerns of the 70s or 90s than the “Hi-ho Silver” style of many of its contemporaries.
The emphasis is on the hardness of life on the frontier, where the biggest threats aren’t from railroad tycoons or Confederate holdouts, but a harsh winter or barbed wire. This is the West of the Donner Party, not the Magnificent Seven, and when hard-up cattleman Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) sets out to save his village, his plan is uncertain, murderous and potentially suicidal.
It’s surprisingly unusual for a Western, but there’s a real sense of remoteness in Day of the Outlaw (though this year’s Slow West managed it as well). Starrett’s town is rough and scattered and cold, serving about 20 people, and open to invasion and abuse by anyone with a foul enough manner to try it. The villain, Captain Jack Bruhn (Burt Ives), comes across as an antecedent of El Indio from For a Few Dollars More: a bad guy who knows how grotesque he and his men can be, but who’s also aware that, if he’s damned already, there’s little point in begging for salvation.
In this situation, women were and are particularly vulnerable. Though it doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test, Day of the Outlaw is concerned about the vulnerability of women in a way that feels very ahead of its time. The explicit threat of rape is a central concern. “Men don’t act like you make us act,” one of Bruhn’s thugs tells him. To them, sexual assault isn’t perversion; it’s a right of conquest, a wage in this monstrous patriarchy. It’s Game of Thrones in neckerchiefs and chequered shirts.
Day of the Outlaw was released in 1959 as Western-mania was beginning its slow wind-down. There’s a clear sense of the wonder of the frontier passing and the harsh realities closing in with winter. Things become ever darker as the film rolls on and Starrett’s plan, when it is revealed, is startlingly bleak. It’s a hard life out west, and, no matter how many times you ride off into the sunset, your journey’s got to end somewhere.
Day of the Outlaw is released on Blu-ray in a Dual Format edition on 7 December.