The latest release from Eureka! is a western that was not rated by critics on its release and was buried among all the other B movie westerns which came out in 1959. The genre of the western, so popular since the silent days began to reduce in popularity by the early 1960s. Never the less there are still westerns which emerged in the late 50s that had a dark and brooding noir feel to them and became game changers in the genre including the films of Budd Boetticher, 5:10 to Yuma, Forty Guns (both 1957) and Terror in a Texas Town (1958) as well as Day of the Outlaw. Directed by Andre de Toth, a director of many a good quality genre B movie.
Significantly the film has a slightly different feel to it than the standard film in that it was filmed in the isolated snowy wastes of Oregon giving the western a very moody intense feel to it. The film is set in Wyoming some 10 years after the American Civil War. In a small trading post town called Bitter, comprising of approximately about 20 citizens there is conflict between the tough frontiersman and cattleman Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) who lives as a loner and has been known to take the law into his own hands and the man he has an ongoing feud with another farmer who he sees as weak while Starrett. Meanwhile Starrett has been having an affair with the man’s wife (Tina Louise). In a wonderfully constructed moment Starrett challenges the farmer to a duel that when a bottle roles off the bar top the pair will draw (nicely shot with a camera on a dolly following the rolling bottle). At the moment before the bottle rolls off a gang of outlaws charge into the saloon and declare that they are holding the townsfolk hostage and confiscate all the towns guns. Led by the portly former Union officer, Captain Bruhn (Burl Ives) he keeps his band of thugs in line, but Bruhn has a chest wound. The only doctor in town is a horse doctor whom he asks to remove the bullet. He does this nervously but Starrett knows that it is important to keep Bruhn alive as he is the only one who can control this band of desperadoes on the run from after a bank robbery and from raping and pillaging. The townsfolk also knows that the isolationist Starrett is their only hope of getting out of this alive. He devises a plan to lead them out of town and leave them to the harshness of nature.
De Toth shot this bleak western in the winter in Oregon. However he was adamant that this was not to look like a pretty ski resort but a bleak inhospitable location. Most of the film, including the interiors was shot here, away from the influence of Hollywood (it was made independently but released through United Artists). The cast and crew appear to be knee deep in snow for much of the film. Fortunately for de Toth the film was shot by Russell Harlan, a director was well used to filming both in harsh conditions while managing to maintain a controlled use of black and white; both de Toth and Harlan were adamant the film was to be shot in black and white giving that cold feel and claustrophobic atmosphere to the film. In the scenes where Ryan leads the gang through an alleged snow wasted trek out of the town. Harlan makes good use of the fog, snow, mist or sunshine – you name it. Added to the remote location and harsh extreme weather there is also the sparseness of the sets. The wooden structures were not sets in the normal Hollywood sense, they were constructed some 6 months before shooting started, similar to what Clint Eastwood did with High Plains Drifter (1973). Good examples are in the goods store and the saloon in which the shelves are virtually bare, placing another element of the remote and inhospitable nature of frontier life at the centre of the film.
The release by Eureka! has the usual high quality picture with the most significant extra being a very personal talk on the film by French film director Bertrand Tavernier who had been a personal friend of de Toth. I always like DVDs and Blu-rays to have the poster on its cover but do not judge this film on the cover with a scantily clad Tina Louise looking sultry having no bearing on the film.