Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) is not a happy man since he does not believe he is getting his due after helping establish this small community in an isolated region of Wyoming. What is particularly aggrieving him are two things: the popularity of barbed wire which has been used for the new farms to stop livestock from wandering, and the man behind that popularity is married to the woman he loves, Helen Crane (Tina Louise). When he rides into the tiny village he is looking for trouble, convinced if he murders Helen’s husband he will get everything he wants, even though she has already told him she cannot love him if he carries out his threat. A showdown is on the cards, but what Starrett has reckoned without are some visitors...
Director André De Toth was the brains behind this independently produced Western, already by that time very experienced in the genre that was obviously his preferred medium, and for many of his fans Day of the Outlaw was one of his finest. Certainly it was a forward-looking film, anticipating the next two decades' revisionist streak which tended, as the style fell out of favour gradually, to question what the gunmen of the Old West would do should society modernise and not need them anymore, which was an issue facing the creators of Westerns. Of course, these stories of good and evil, no matter how they were shaded, simply adapted themselves into other forms, yet for movies like this a note of finality was sounded.
Though De Toth often worked with Randolph Scott, it was Ryan who took the lead this time, a star who appreciated cowboy pictures as much as his director did, and proving as usual an interesting presence as the tough guy whose flaws were often too much to ignore. His Starrett here began as the villain of the piece, all set to turn to murder to get his way as much as a lashing out to re-establish his shrinking influence, but fifteen minutes later there was a new threat in town, and they were a gang of rogue Cavalry led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives). They may not be staying, however they are planning on ruling the roost while they are there, and Starrett finds himself at the mercy of guys who are worse than he is.
Which puts him in an unusual position, where he is the only man in town able to stand up to Bruhn’s men, who are being denied alcohol and women by their leader which is making them extremely frustrated. The tension is palpable - if they get their drinks, they will then move on to the females, and there's a very uneasy to watch sequence where Bruhn allows them a dance with them where these uncouth men can barely restrain themselves from raping the women as a jittery, inane piano melody plays. Making things worse is that Bruhn is there to have an operation to remove a bullet; they don't have a doctor, so the vet (a perspiring Dabbs Greer) will have to do, and if the old man dies then there's no telling what his men will visit on the town.
As if that was not pressing enough, the gang have just come from a Mormon settlement they have effectively wiped out, the implication being this small town will be next on their list with no qualms whatsoever. As often, the civilised in the Western were under constant threat from those who had not given up violence, and here there was a mood of a society on the brink, hanging in the balance between chaos and order. What made it all the more distinctive was the snowbound landscape this was set in, a deliberate choice by De Toth to make it look as inhospitable as possible as if the elements were daring the townsfolk to stick around, just try to make something of yourselves in these conditions, go on. The last act had Starrett redeem himself at great risk of self-sacrifice, striking out to the freezing countryside, trailing the gang behind him, telling us if it was not for the violent men on our side, the violent men on the other side are going to dominate and exterminate. It was a stark film, but grew seriously engrossing as it developed towards its all or nothing denouement. Music by Alexander Courage.
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray has a picture as crisp as the snow, with an interview with Bertrand Tavernier and a chance to watch the film with music and effects only as extras. Into the bargain there is also a substantial booklet, including a De Toth interview.]