Western Roundup: Snowy Westerns and Day of the Outlaw
Within the Western genre, there are some frequently recurring themes, including range wars, cattle drives, wagon trains, town takeovers, and travelers banding together against a common enemy. While some viewers might find the familiar ideas repetitive, for me there is great pleasure in seeing each Western film’s unique spin on a story.
A theme which doesn’t show up quite as frequently as others but which I find quite enjoyable is what I like to call the “snowy Western.” In these films, the winter weather provides a striking backdrop, and frequently the setting also serves as a key plot device.
One such wintry Western is 20th Century-Fox’s The Secret of Convict Lake (1951), in which prisoners who escaped from a Carson City jail seek refuge from a blizzard in a small Sierras settlement where the men happen to be away. Glenn Ford, having fallen in love with Gene Tierney (what man wouldn’t?!), stands up to his fellow outlaws; by the time the storm fades and a posse arrives, Ford and the settlers have handled the outlaws in their own way.
The Wild North (1952) is another snowy Western, which also fits into what I think of as the “Northerner” subgenre, with a Canadian setting! Mountie Wendell Corey is charged with bringing in a trapper (Stewart Granger) to face a murder charge, but in the end, the trapper saves the Mountie’s life as they battle the harsh winter elements for survival.
At a screening, I attended of William Wellman‘s Track of the Cat (1954), his son William Wellman Jr. described the film as “offbeat” and “a black and white movie shot in color.” That’s a wonderful summation of a wintry film about a dysfunctional family, which features Robert Mitchum riding through the snow in order to hunt down the big cat which killed his brother. The contrast of the few colors seen in the film against the blinding white backdrop of the snow is one of the film’s most memorable aspects.
The Far Country (1954) is one of my favorite James Stewart Westerns directed by Anthony Mann. While not as wintry as the previously mentioned movies, there are great shots of Stewart and cast riding through the snow in “Alaska” — actually Jasper National Park in Canada — as well as gorgeous snow-covered mountains. With snowdrifts in the background, it seems genuinely cold throughout much of the movie, making one long for some of costar Walter Brennan‘s beloved coffee. The first time I saw the film I remember thinking one could almost feel and smell what it must have been like standing right there as the cameras rolled.
An excellent modern spin on the snowy Western is Wind River (2017), replacing the traditional sheriff and deputy with an FBI agent (a woman, in fact, played by Elizabeth Olsen) and a Fish and Game employee (Jeremy Renner). Thought it’s more gritty in terms of depicting violence, Wind River fits right in the tradition of these earlier films and is highly recommended for classic film fans.
I’ve just watched yet another winter Western for the very first time, Day of the Outlaw (1959), and will share my impressions of this memorable film below at greater length.
Day of the Outlaw was directed by Andre De Toth, who had previously directed a number of good Randolph Scott Westerns and a particularly fine Joel McCrea Western, Ramrod (1947). The script for Day of the Outlaw was written by Phillip Yordan, based on a novel by Lee E. Wells.
The cold winter weather is front and center from the movie’s very first scene, as rancher Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his loyal employee Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) arrive in the small settlement of Bitters.
Starrett is intent on killing farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) for fencing off his land, but the honest truth is that Starrett would like to make a widow of Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise of Gilligan’s Island), with whom he once had an affair.
A showdown between Starrett and Crane is immediately looming when suddenly Captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his outlaw gang arrive in town, loaded with stolen money and seeking refuge from their hard, wintry ride with the cavalry in pursuit.
Bruhn promises the townspeople that his men won’t drink, harm the womenfolk, or shoot up the town but his control over his men is only good as long as he’s alive. The town veterinarian (Dabbs Greer) is coerced into removing a bullet from Captain Bruhn’s chest, after which the vet warns the townspeople that Bruhn may not have much time left to live.
Bruhn’s restless men (including Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, and Frank DeKova) insist on dancing with the town’s ladies. Gene, the youngest of the gang (David Nelson), takes a shine to young Ernine (Venetia Stevenson) and is considerate of her and her family, but things start to turn ugly with the other men, who are on the verge of bursting out of control.
Starrett has been changed by the experience and realizes he doesn’t want to be a killer like Bruhn’s men. He devises a plan to protect the townspeople by leading the gang out into the mountains, but it may be a trip with no return.
Day of the Outlaw is a movie to watch wrapped in a warm blanket, even in August, as everyone in the film looks genuinely, constantly cold, even when bundled up against the weather. According to IMDb, the movie was filmed in Oregon and around Flagstaff in Northern Arizona, and the snow-white locations, as filmed by Russell Harlan, are stunning.
The final sequence of the men trudging through deep snow is visually breathtaking, especially in moments where the sun unexpectedly shines through the trees; it’s especially difficult to watch the poor struggling horses! As hoped by Starrett, the weather gradually takes its toll on the gang, as one by one they collapse, freeze, or fight over the remaining horses.
The story, with an outlaw gang led by a father figure taking control of a large group of upright citizens, reminded me a bit of John Ford‘s Wagon Master (1950), but what makes Day of the Outlaw different is the way the farmers and ranchers are forced to unite to face a common threat, illustrating the old adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Ryan’s gradual transformation from villain to hero is another especially interesting element. He looks a bit worn here, but it works in terms of his portrayal of a character struggling to carve out a living in a remote area. He might seem a mismatch for the much younger Louise, but Ryan is nothing if not powerfully charismatic, and their relationship is also in keeping with the story, in which there are very few adults in town; with only three women there in addition to Helen, that greatly limits potential relationships.
David Nelson’s Gene, whom Bruhn treats somewhat like a son, is out of step with the rest of the group, raising all sorts of questions as to how he became mixed up with them in the first place. It’s rather interesting to note that the very same year David appeared in this film, his brother Rick was holding off the bad guys in a little Western town alongside John Wayne, in Howard Hawks‘ classic Rio Bravo (1959). The Nelson boys picked their Western roles well.
Venetia Stevenson, like Nelson, was from a show business family; her parents were actress Anna Lee (who appeared in John Ford’s Fort Apache) and director Robert Stevenson. Stevenson is effective as a lonely girl attracted to a handsome young man, in a town with few romantic options; unfortunately, her desire to protect Gene from what seems certain death almost undoes Starrett’s valiant plan. For that matter, her concern for her little brother (Mike McGreevey) also leads to trouble. A case of good intentions not working out so well!
Ives made this film the year after his Oscar-winning supporting role in William Wyler‘s classic The Big Country (1958). It’s a quieter part, but he’s equally powerful in both films as an outlaw with something of a conscience, who will take necessary steps if someone younger crosses a line. In the end, he is rather valiant, taking responsibility for protecting the town from his men by following Starrett, knowing full well the most likely outcome of the journey.
Look for Helen Westcott in a minor role as one of the town’s quartet of women. Westcott’s best-known role was probably as Gregory Peck‘s estranged wife in The Gunfighter (1950). Circling back to the beginning of this article, it also just so happens that she was in The Secret of Convict Lake.
I very much enjoyed my first viewing of Day of the Outlaw and recommend it, along with the other films mentioned above. Stay warm, everyone!
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.