Starring: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise

Director: André De Toth
Released: 1959

Mood: If you’re stuck in a rut where every day feels the same and want to shake things up with a Western that’s classic quality yet nothing like the usual fare.


I picked up Day of the Outlaw at a record store in a mall.


‘Record store’ and ‘mall’ are both places I never go, since I don’t own a record player and the closest mall is three hours away. But my mom and I were in Prince George, the aforementioned city three hours away, and wandered into a mall. We stumbled upon Sunrise Records and its awesome cult movie section FULL of Westerns.


I never thought of Westerns as having big cult followings, other than maybe Tombstone, Blazing Saddles, and the Dollars trilogy. Those are the only ones I hear quoted all the time. But I’m stoked about this discovery – if there are a lot of cult Westerns, that would make me some kind of cult leader and I graciously accept this new title.


Long story short, some of those cult Westerns were on sale, and Day of the Outlaw was one. But when I said “long story short” I was lying. There’s more!


When I read the book Nunslinger back in early 2022, I looked up everything else the mysterious author had written. I came across the author’s review of Day of the Outlaw and immediately put it on my wishlist… where it sat until now.


NOW you know the whole story, so we can get on with the review of this stark n’ dark little Western that you should definitely see.


day of the outlaw DVD on snow


The DVD cover has NOTHING to do with Day of the Outlaw, other than the fact that it’s Tina Louise in the photo. That scene isn’t in the movie, nor anything like it. I think the scandalous vibe was meant to make audiences eager to see it, but in the late ’50s Westerns were in their heyday so I have no idea what’s going on.


Day of the Outlaw doesn’t need provocative marketing. It starts out with a premise we know and love: a small Wyoming town struggling under the iron fist of cattle barons who control the law, and the clash between ranchers and homesteaders.


But you quickly learn that powerful boss Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) is still in love with his former flame, Helen (Tina Louise) – and she’s now married to one of the farmers challenging Starrett by putting up barbed wire fences (Alan Marshal as Hal Crane). It’s also the dead of winter, so it’s a bit startling to realize you won’t be getting a single glimpse of a dusty Western desert.


Blaise and Hal are just about to shoot it out when ex-cavalryman and current outlaw Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his posse of mostly dangerous men walk into the saloon. Despite his lovely manners Bruhn is established as a badder bad guy than Starrett, and the snow-bound town is taken hostage.


Bruhn reveals that he was shot during a robbery, and forces the local vet to surgically remove a bullet under the threat that if he dies, so does the whole town. He also forbids his pent-up men from drinking and assaulting the women, but his crew is creepy and lecherous and Bruhn’s hold is slipping as his health declines.


The town needs saving, and their hero is not who you’d expect.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


The first thing that stands out about Day of the Outlaw is the snow. Holy shit, is there a lot of snow in this movie.


Although the budget is on the smaller side, the incredible cinematography more than makes up for it. There’s an emphasis on bleak outdoor scenic shots that capture how small and frail the town is, and how the characters are trapped. As a person who moved to a rural area and is now surrounded by snow half the year, I instantly related to that feeling.


Director André De Toth shot all of the outdoor scenes in a town he had constructed several months prior to allow the buildings to become naturally weather-beaten. The authentically cold early-winter air and snowy central Oregon mountains beautifully evoke the themes of isolation, survival, and hardship.


Apparently De Toth had to fight to film Day of the Outlaw in black and white, and we are so lucky that he won that argument.


I couldn’t find the original source, but several articles quote De Toth as saying, “Had I shot it in color, the green pine trees covered with snow, the soft glow of candles, the dancing tongues of flames in the fireplaces would have radiated warmth and safety and the joy of peace on earth.”


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


Although the outdoor shots are powerful, especially when the poor horses are chest-deep in snow and struggling to blaze a trail for what truly feels like hours, De Toth has a keen eye for close-ups, too.


Most of the bullet removal ‘surgery’ scene is focused right in on Burl Ives’s face, sweaty and glassy-eyed as he monologues. It showcases his impressive range, but also the director’s fascination with complex human nature. None of the main characters in Day of the Outlaw are what they seem.


Starrett and Bruhn have good qualities that add unique layers to their ‘bad guy’ positions. I mean, Blaise is first portrayed as this ruler-with-an-iron-fist type of boss, yet he is one of the few men who never fires a single shot in the film. Young outlaw Gene is a sweetheart. Hopeless romantic Ernine is fearless. And Helen is two-faced and useless and not worth even one man loving her let alone two, although maybe that’s just me finding Tina Louise’s acting terrible.


It’s a Western about clashes between typical roles AND about what happens when you lock all of those roles in a confined area with bad weather and the ticking clock of an injury and the law showing up at any time – or not at all.


It’s a crazy coincidence that I watched this right after seeing The Hateful Eight, which utilizes the same concept. Dare I say it, I enjoyed Day of the Outlaw a little more. Sure, I’d love to have Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh on my screen. But with a comparable budget and a few different actors, I think De Toth’s movie could have been perfection.


And I’m clearly not alone in that thought – Day of the Outlaw has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


Robert Ryan and Burl Ives are mind-blowingly good in their roles. 10/10, no notes – although Ryan can’t hold up to Ives in their shared scenes. Nobody could. Ryan shines in the last third of the film, when everything is out in the frozen wilderness. After seeing this and The Big Country I’m officially a massive Burl Ives fan, and will now pursue Robert Ryan Westerns.


Several of the supporting and minor characters are also memorable, including Nehemiah Persoff as Dan, Dabbs Greer as Doc, Frank DeKova as Denver, and Jack Woody as Shorty. The rest of the acting kind of ranges from melodramatic (Tina Louise) to flat (Venetia Stevenson), or relies on characterizations that had already been done into the ground by the late ‘50s (the rest of Bruhn’s posse).


Still, I really enjoyed this movie and will absolutely force other people to watch it so they can appreciate its brilliance.