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Three disparate travelers, a disillusioned preacher, an unsuccessful prospector, and a larcenous, cynical con man, meet at a decrepit railroad station in the 1870s Southwest. The prospector and the preacher were witnesses at the singularly memorable rape and murder trial of the notorious Mexican outlaw Carasco. The bandit duped an aristocratic Southerner into believing he knew the location of a lost Aztec treasure. The greedy "gentleman" allows himself to be tied up while Carasco deflowers his wife. These events lead to the stabbing of the husband and are related by the three eyewitnesses to the atrocity: the infamous bandit, the newlywed wife, and the dead man through an Indian shaman. Whose version of the events is true? Possibly there was a fourth witness, but can his version be trusted? Written by
Paul Newman plays a Mexican bandit so convincingly in "The Outrage" (Martin Ritt, 1964) that it's extremely difficult to recognize Newman at all. Far from being a star vehicle, the Paul Newman "persona" isn't recognizable here in the least. I must admit that for quite a while, I kept wondering when Newman was going to finally arrive on the screen, before it dawned upon me that Newman was playing the bandit. I wouldn't deem his amoral, animalistic, lusty performance brilliant because it constitutes a rather stereotypical caricature of a Mexican bandit. Nevertheless, Newman disguises himself so dramatically, to the point where "Paul Newman" is almost invisible, that his performance becomes noteworthy just the same.
Overall, Martin Ritt's Western remake of Akira Kurosawa's landmark and legendary "Rashomon" (Kurosawa, 1950) is worth viewing despite some obvious flaws. Ritt doesn't add anything new to Kurosawa's famous study in subjective truth and point-of-view prejudice, and at times, "The Outrage," which was also taken from a then-recent Broadway play, appears a bit flat and copied. Indeed, it occasionally seems as if Ritt grows bored with the story that he's copying from Kurosawa and Broadway and that he's yearning for comedy and satire in his otherwise straight remake. However, those alternative tones are never fully developed and as a result the film fails to make a dynamic impact. That same year, over in Spain, Italian director Sergio Leone remade Kurosawa's Samurai classic "Yojimbo" (1961) as a Western, but he did so with epochal results, largely because he brought a whole new visual style (a patient, rhythmic balance of stunning panorama and extreme close-ups) and directorial slant (a fluid study in operatic nihilism and surrealism) to Kurosawa's story. In other words, Leone remade a Kurosawa film and in doing so, he transformed it into something vastly different. In "The Outrage," Ritt fails to pull off the same trick.
That said, there are some aspects that recommend "The Outrage" to the viewer, and Newman's chameleon performance is just one of them. All of Ritt's remarkable directorial trademarks are on display here: his ambiguity; his objectivity; his refusal to condescend to the audience; the moral shadiness that he evokes; his rejection of black-or-white moral simplicity; his implicit and unstrained social commentary (in this case revolving around the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, not to mention regionalism); his spare, ominously striking visuality; his meditative pacing. Perhaps most noteworthy is James Wong Howe's haunting black-and-white cinematography, which reflects an ominous glow and projects an apocalyptic sensibility rather than Western grandeur. Instead of macrocosmic vistas, Howe's compositions capture a sense of claustrophobia, moral confusion, and subjective truth thanks to their low-angle and eye-level confinement. Through his camera-work, the Western landscape becomes not a romantic frontier or an open-air arena, but instead an entangling thicket where honor and honesty descend in a squalid ravine. Most remarkable are the crepuscular, stormy, forbidding shots of a forsaken railway station during a desert thunderstorm. It is here that three observers (one of which is deliciously played by the always memorable Edward G. Robinson) discuss the different versions of truth while refraining from spelling out the implications for the audience. Ritt, as usual, forces the viewer to think for him or herself. And what Ritt reveals are the human motivationspride, vanity, contempt, guilt, shame, distrust, lust, cowardice, avarice, survivalthat color the notion of truth and ultimately render it subjective. Unfortunately, as a straight remake, "The Outrage"'s presentation of these themes is a little too flat and perfunctory to leave a fresh impact. Still, the film is compelling and curious, standing as an artistic, sobering Western and the most obscure oater that Paul Newman ever starred in. And of course, Newman virtually obscures himself by becoming another.
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