LEE WELLS – Day of the Outlaw. Rinehart, hardcover, 1955. Dell #906, paperback, 1956.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW. United Artists, 1959. Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Nehemia Persoff, David Nelson, Venetia Stevenson, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Elisha Cook Jr, Dabs Greer, Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert, and Paul Wexler. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on the novel by Lee Wells. Directed by André De Toth.

   Two very different takes on the story, each memorable in its own way.

   Both deal with an isolated frontier community imprisoned by snow and mud, a tough rancher willing to kill for more land, and a band of outlaws just barely under the control of a hardened chief, who take over the town. But from there on, the book and the film go different ways.

   In Wells’ novel, the Rancher Blaise Starrett (The name seems a deliberate reference to Shane, released two years earlier.) has a foreman, Dan Murdock, who refuses to follow his boss’s murderous program and gets fired for his scruples. From that point on, Dan becomes the book’s central character. There are minor digressions to limn the thoughts and actions of townsfolk and desperadoes, but mostly we follow his efforts to a) unseat the outlaws; b) keep his neighbors and those he loves from gettin’ they fool heads blowed off; c) thwart Starrett’s lethal scheme; and d) get in out of the damn weather, which veers from mudslide to blizzard as only Wyoming weather can.

   Murdock doesn’t always succeed at this, which lends a real sense of uncertainty to the outcome, as we follow his progress through fights & frustrations to a dan-dan-dandy final shootout between the citizens and a last, lethal gunman who bids fair to kill them all. Wells has a gift for detailing fast action and dangerous personalities with equal flair, and the result is a book that kept me up reading past my bedtime. Which is why I became a Grown-up.

   In the film however, Dan Murdock(played by Nehemiah Persoff) gets blind drunk early on and pretty much drops out of the action as Starrett (Robert Ryan at his toughest) decides to gun down the inconvenient nesters in a “fair” fight, only to have his plans smattered (“smattered?”I like that. I think I’ll keep it.) his plans smattered by the dirtiest-looking bunch of renegades to hit the screen till The Wild Bunch.

   These baddies seem on the edge of smattering up the whole town, but they’re held in tenuous check by Burl Ives, who clings to the fantasy that they are a disciplined bunch and he their leader — and Burl Ives is about the only actor possessed of a screen presence imposing enough to carry it off. He actually projects a sense of power over the likes of Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller and Paul Wexler (more on him later) while they convey a sense of incipient chaos you can feel coming through the screen.

   Oh – did I mention Ive’s character is dying of a bullet wound? And if he goes, his owlhoots look all set on rape, murder, and wholesale destruction — for starters.

   It’s all very tense, but I have to say it also gets awfully confining after a while, with so much happening indoors. Even when they get outside, the landscape is flat and uninteresting, and I found myself growing restless until…

   Well I’ll just say the last part of Day of the Outlaw is spectacular and literally chilling, with Robert Ryan and the outlaws struggling through a blizzard to an eerie, silent, haunting climax.

   And now a word about the cast. Ryan & Ives dominate the thing, but I was impressed by what director André De Toth did with the outlaws. David Nelson (Ricky’s older brother) projects youthful angst as a kid gone wrong; Lance Fuller, inept leading man in things like Voodoo Woman and The She Creature, is actually quite good here as a grinning gun-happy back-shooter; Jack Lambert is the only actor who could scowl and sneer at the same time, and Paul Wexler…

   Wexler’s star never rose high nor shined brightly in Hollywood, but I recall him fondly as the sinister butler in The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters and Henry Daniell’s lip-sewn gofer in The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. Here he plays a mixed-race desperado whose fixed stare threatens to steal the show from all the better actors.

   Films are too often judged and condemned based on their faithfulness to the book, but I found this one just as enjoyable in its own way. And when I say that about a film from a book I couldn’t put down, well… Try them both.