Tue 8 Jan 2013
Bret Harte wrote “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” sometime around 1870 and it’s been around in one form or another ever since, a harsh, ironic slice of life that prefigures Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” “Outcasts” sketches out the fates of a group of ne’er-do-wells who get run out of town in a general clean-up after the bank is robbed, and tells the tale with a terse irony that exemplifies the best in short fiction.
Not surprisingly, it’s been filmed several times, and (equally unsurprising) each time the filmmakers felt they had to abandon the spare quality that makes the story so memorable and add more plot to pad it out to an acceptable length for a movie. I caught a couple of these recently and was impressed by their complementary nature.
THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT (RKO, 1937) spends most of its hour-plus running time detailing the events that lead up to the ouster of the outcasts, with Preston Foster as a gambler, Jean Muir and Van Heflin as the schoolmarm and preacher who want to reform him, and a host of familiar character actors like Billy Gilbert, Si Jenks and Al St. John as barflies. There’s also a trio of rather likeable bad guys played by Bradley Page, Richard Lane and Monte Blue, all quite good in parts written a bit out of the ordinary, but pride of place here must go to Christy Cabanne’s direction.
Cabanne was a prolific director (165 films from 1912 to 1948!) mostly of B features, best remembered for things like THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940) and THE LAST OUTLAW (1936, with Harry Carey and Hoot Gibson in a story by John Ford.) Here he imparts a kind of awkward realism to the proceedings, possibly because of the modest means at his disposal, but whatever the case, OUTCASTS unfolds with a rough-edged authenticity you don’t see often in the movies. For example:
In a scene early on, Oakhurst (Preston Foster) hides a derringer up his sleeve to surprise an opponent. And for the next several minutes he goes around like a guy hiding a gun up his sleeve, stiff and tense as he waits for his chance and we wait to see him take it.
When the bartender kills a drunken Indian shooting up the place, he does it by hauling a buffalo gun out from under the bar, taking his time to aim and fire—an act of violence all the more impressive for being so slow and careful.
And as Oakhurst and the bad guy get ready to duel, they pull their guns first, then approach each other warily; none of that quick-draw-on-Main-Street stuff you see in other westerns, just plain ordinary killing.
All of which is just a preliminary to the exile forced on Oakhurst and the other outcasts—the crux of Harte’s story — which takes up about ten minutes of an hour-long film, and still has a haunting effect on the viewer. This one, anyway.
Fifteen years later, Fox dusted off the story and did it again (1952), and this time they placed the emphasis on what happens after the eponymous outcasts begin their forced exile. Dale Robertson stars as Oakhurst, and gives a tough, thoughtful interpretation of a man at the end of his string, playing his cards out as best he can. Cameron Mitchell and Anne Baxter add a touch of noir as the murderous bank robber and his reluctant moll, with Miriam Hopkins thrown in as a madam and Billy Lynn as a rather pathetic drunk.
This OUTCASTS is a dark, edgy affair—it even opens like a film noir, with a long, slow track down a dark urban street, and Cameron Mitchell, years before his embarrassing horror films, delivers a fine performance, sadistically bullying everyone around and gradually losing control as he realizes he can’t kill his way out of a blizzard. Or as Robertson succinctly puts it, “why don’t you go out and shoot yourself some snow?” Anne Baxter and Miriam Hopkins lend just the right touch of hard-boiled pathos to their fallen women, and director Joseph Newman, who had his moments, puts the whole thing over with pace and precision.
I should add a note about Barbara Bates, who plays one half of a pair of innocents sheltering from the storm on their way into town. She plays off her naïve character very capably against Hopkins and Baxter, and actually makes a place in a film mostly devoted to the more colorful types. This was in fact her second film with Anne Baxter; they share the final scene in ALL ABOUT EVE.