Monday, June 9, 2008

Best westerns: Man with the Gun, Day of the Outlaw exude the brutality and grace of the genre's transitional period

Richard Wilson began his career under the auspices of Orson Welles, working in various capacities—producer, writer, actor—for The Mercury Theatre before following the leader to Hollywood in 1940. By the time Wilson was helming his own projects Welles was already lost in the wilderness of his unruly career, and perhaps this prompted Wilson to choose a more modest course. Man with the Gun (1955), Wilson’s directorial debut, in no way attempts to mimic Welles’ stylistic flamboyance. Rather, it’s an unfussy, well-crafted genre picture, the sort of work that doesn’t announce he arrival of a magnificent prodigy but does in fact hold up extremely well with age—and with any luck will reach a fresh audience with Fox’s new DVD release.

The story of a lone gunman hired to bring peace to a small town ruled by thugs, Man with the Gun, which arrived in theatres the same year as The Night of the Hunter, finds Robert Mitchum giving an unusually brooding performance as “town tamer” Clint Tollinger, dressed in head-to-toe gray, his face looking flat and cold—that is until the news about his estranged family he’s been searching for is finally delivered and he flies into a rage, unleashing his wrath upon the town saloon. Mitchum’s is a brilliantly measured, never ingratiating performance that only reveals all it needs to in the final scenes, making no apologies for Tollinger’s brutality.

In the first scene a man rides into town and gleefully shoots a dog. Later a whiskey seller perches on a front porch to enjoy the gunplay in the main street with a twisted smile while the local prostitutes seem increasingly aroused by the bloodshed. Violence in Man with the Gun is never excessively sensationalized nor simplified, with Wilson wisely and subtly building an atmosphere of dread rather than terror. The use of Alex North’s music creates striking juxtapositions, sounding eerily wistful in a scene where Tollinger tells the story of an unarmed man being slaughtered, or dream-like and droning during the build-up to the film’s climax. The result of such balance and elemental interplay is a bracing example of the transitional western at its best.

A blizzard slow engulfs a pioneer settlement as a pair of ranchers traverse the blank valley where a charcoal smear of trees line the horizon before distant mountain peaks give way to a flat, forbidding sky. One of these ranchers, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), is coming into town to kill a man, ostensibly for putting up fences on a landscape intended for open grazing, though the fact that he’s in love with the man’s wife (Tina Louise) may have something to do with it. Messy, violent death looms as an empty bottle rolls across a bar in the wintry silence, its imminent crash intended to signal gunfire. The crash is interrupted however by the arrival of a former US military captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), on the lam and here to take siege of the town with a band of bush-crazed, horny degenerates. Bruhn can barely control his men, and what’s more he’s got a bullet in his chest that will likely kill him within a matter of hours. Everything seems geared toward something absolutely awful. I guess it’s just like Blaise tells his beloved Helen early on: “You won’t find mercy anywhere in Wyoming.”

It takes a hell of a movie to follow something as good as Man with the Gun. Fortunately Day of the Outlaw (59), also newly on DVD from Fox, is an even bolder, bleaker, more distinctive work, a western wrapped in bad weather, hardship, cold death and repressed longing. Maybe it has something to do with the cast and crew’s collective background in film noir (yes, there's even a part of Elisha Cook Jr.). Screenwriter Philip Yordan—Dillinger (45), The Big Combo (55)—honed Lee E. Wells’ source novel to a taut three acts of savagery, desire, desperate invention, moral realization and fatalistic suspense. Ryan’s in top form with a role very much in keeping with much of his best work—Crossfire (47), Act of Violence (48), On Dangerous Ground (52)—while using the now tangible accumulation of time and age upon his voice and visage to deepen the pathos. He’s at once frightening and deeply sympathetic, sick to his guts with heartache, a sense of futility and a suicidal urge toward pointless destruction.

Day of the Outlaw is also further evidence of the oft-forgotten mastery of André De Toth, the Hungarian-born director who pumped out a formidable stream of genre films in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. His manipulation of time, space and sound elevates several sequences toward the cruelly sublime: letting scenes play out entirely in master shot before closing in on a character’s face just when he’s about to undergo a radical shift; allowing the violence to become more uncomfortable by letting only the whistling wind provide the score; allowing the farewell between the youngest, nicest of the degenerates and the town’s young maiden to unfold with tenderness, humour and transitory ache. It’s the kind of work that should rightfully draw even moviegoers uninterested in genre films, and deserves this advice: even if you don’t normally go for westerns, see Day of the Outlaw.

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