Andre de Toth's 1959 snowbound western "Day of the Outlaw" features the incomparable Burl Ives as Captain Jack Bruhn, a military man who leads a pack of roaming outlaws into a small frontier town. Like pretty much everyone from my generation, I only really know Ives as the snowman narrator of "Ruldolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer," so hearing his familiar voice come out of a hardened killer was startling and wonderful.
Startling, because his sweet, soothing voice commands the respect of his men and creates some sympathy from Robert Ryan's Blaise Starrett. Wonderful, because unlike the typical Western villain, Ives seems like a kindly grandfather burdened by difficult choices. He's evil, but it's an evil built upon a series of choices made long ago -- decisions he may regret, but he cannot change the past.
But that spark of redemption drives the film, as Ryan -- a cattleman not without his own dark flaws -- tries to appeal to the best of Ives's morality in an attempt to keep the outlaw gang from destroying the town. The gang wants nothing more than to drink whatever the tavern has to offer and grope whatever women happen by. Ives has more dignity than that -- he forbids whiskey and women -- but he's dying from a bullet wound, and that ticking clock amplifies the tension significantly.
The female lead, so lasciviously shown on the movie poster, is none other than Tina Louise from "Gilligan's Island" fame. She's great in this role (a much more conservative one than the poster would indicate), and she's almost unrecognizable for those of us who grew up on her Marilyn Monroe caricature in reruns. Here, she's fierce and stoic, and she doesn't have enough to do, but what she does, she does well.
"Day of the Outlaw" ends with an anticlimactic showdown in the snow, as Robert Ryan's character leads the outlaws over a mountain pass that doesn't really exist, and one by one, the gang members fall prey to the harsh wintry conditions.
But when Burl Ives is on screen, it's a captivating film, and definitely worth a look.
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