by Tony Dayoub
Martin Ritt's The Outrage is one of the more offbeat stabs Hollywood has taken at westernizing (both in the literal and the genre sense) a Kurosawa film. Like The Magnificent Seven (1960) before it, as well as the former's Italian contemporary, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the change of setting from feudal Japan to the Old West may seem at first glance to be the only difference in this almost scene-for-scene translation of the Japanese director's Rashomon. But Rashomon's focus on the perception of moral responsibility subtly shifts to a study of class hierarchy in this ambitious, more deliberately-paced, dreamlike western.
Just as Kurosawa begins his film with a downpour as a priest, woodcutter, and a con man gather for shelter under the desolate Rashomon Gate in Kyoto, The Outrage fades in on a lonely train depot virtually eroding under the dark, oppressive rain. A Preacher (pre-Trek William Shatner) voices his doubts about humanity aloud as a Prospector (Howard Da Silva) arrives to convince him not to leave town. A Confidence Man (Edward G. Robinson) rounds out the makeshift chorus, interrogating and allying himself with each man as they recount the event which pushed the Preacher to flee, the trial of Mexican bandido Carrasco (Paul Newman) for the rape of a young Wife (Claire Bloom) and the murder of her Husband (Laurence Harvey).
As in Rashomon, the same incident is revisited various times from the distinct perspectives of Carrasco, the Wife, and even the dead man by way of an Indian Medicine Man (Paul Fix) who claims to be channeling the late Husband. Kurosawa's version cast frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune in the showy part of the bandit, who relates his version in a way which validates the murder as a dangerous duel in which he honorably prevailed over a noble samurai. The Outrage deviates from Rashomon in that Carrasco, a second-class Mexican outlaw, claims to have been intrigued by the sophisticated manner in which the Wife carries herself, with the added bonus being the embarrassment of the Southern aristocracy in the form of the foppish Husband. From the sex-starved Wife we learn that the reputation of Carrasco—fueled by the "Latin lover" racial stereotype—appeals to her romantic sensibilities, especially given her Husband's current economic circumstances. We learn through subsequent retellings of Carrasco's crime that the class struggle between the three participants is ultimately an empty exercise. As the differing accounts of the assault begin to converge, one posits that the Wife came from "poor white trash" beginnings while another offers that the Husband lost his fortune during the Civil War, motivating the couple's journey west.
Ritt attempts to reinforce the class distinction by pitting his own recurring alter ego, the earthier, Method-influenced Newman, against the more refined, classically trained Bloom and Harvey (even though he's an icier stiff here than usual). Newman and Ritt had just come off the critical zenith of their partnership only one year earlier with the success of one of my all-time favorite films, Hud. But the actor's casting as Carrasco in this, his fifth collaboration with Ritt, proves to be an insurmountable misfire. According to Rob Nixon, Newman had referred to the role as one of his favorites, no doubt due to it being an extremely atypical role for him; a very ethnic, very amoral villain. But despite the amount of time he spent researching Carrasco's Mexican accent, Newman's, shall we say, exuberant Method-style emoting married to the horrible, almost parodic dialect he inflicts on his fellow actors brings the whole movie down around him.
The dynamism Ritt sought is more strongly felt in the framing scenes involving Da Silva, Robinson, and Shatner, three stage-trained actors who approach acting from their extremely different respective disciplines of musical theater, summer stock, and Shakespearean classicism. Who would think that with the singularly idiosyncratic styles of each of these actors, it would be Newman who fouls it up?
William Shatner fares the best as the Preacher. If any of the characters fill the role of protagonist in this disquieting tale it is the Preacher. The disillusioned Preacher undergoes the most profound change, with the Prospector and the Con Man battling it out to convince him whether man has a greater capacity for good or evil. Shatner wisely suppresses his tendency towards flamboyant theatrics and lets the stormy setting reflect his passive character's inner turmoil. Perhaps in this film more than any other, one can see the nuance with which he can color a performance. Shatner modulates the Preacher's transformation to match the diminishing rain as it slowly starts letting up.
The great cinematographer James Wong Howe considered his black and white work in this dark, rainy, set to be particularly flawed. He opined that the backdrop looked phony in bright light. Erring on the side of darkness made the rain difficult to light, creating a compromised, muddled picture. Personally, I believe it is just a matter of the times catching up to the visionary Howe. Watching The Outrage on a DVD released just last year, one sees subtle variations within the black on black picture which create an eerie atmosphere that heightens the depiction of the train depot as a near-supernatural limbo. In my mind, the artificial backdrop only enhances this surreal quality.
Often, the hallucinogenic sound mix by Larry Jost appropriately replicates the sensation of memory by omitting all ambient sound except for a single specific one in each retelling of the central incident. Sometimes, one only hears a flock of birds taking flight. Other times, the running of a small spring is all one hears.
Ultimately, the aesthetic tension forged out of such disparate elements—the otherworldly mood created by the strange soundscape, the spare use of legendary composer Alex North's score, the off-kilter worm's eye angles of Howe's photography, and Ritt's Method-inflected direction of the cast—elevates The Outrage beyond the usual failed remakes.
This is a contribution to Shatnerthon: The William Shatner Blogathon currently running at She Blogged by Night from July 5th through the 9th.
It is also crossposted at the western blog Decisions at Sundown.