When it’s on: Tuesday, 22 May (11.35 am)
Akira Kurosawa loved Westerns and transferred many of the relevant themes and memes into his own work. It stands to reason that when US filmmakers came to adapt Kurosawa’s films for their audiences, they were translated into Westerns. A case in point is Martin Ritt’s 1964 entry, The Outrage, an update of Rashomon. The action moves from feudal Japan to the Old West, but otherwise the transfer is faithful to quite an eerie extent. Rashomon’s structure, characters and even many of its scenes are copied, sometimes word for word, which of course begs the question – why not just watch Rashomon? I made the mistake of catching both films back to back. The Outrage really does play like a love letter to Kurosawa, as though Ritt couldn’t bear to omit such sublime art from his film.
Rashomon’s reputation now ensures it’s one of the world’s cinematic treasures, which pales The Outrage still further. That said, it’s not a bad film, and it’s possible to argue that much of the criticism levelled against it is really consternation at Ritt’s temerity in attempting to touch the material. The adaptation for the stage never had so much trouble, though it played the material fairly straight and never attempted to turn it into a Western. Another way of looking at it is to argue that it’s evidence of the genre’s limitless flexibility. You could use the Western canvas upon which to paint any picture you chose. If The Outrage has an appropriate Western connection, perhaps it’s with William A Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident, which covers similar ground with an exploration of the vagaries of justice in the Old West.
The Outrage is essentially a series of flashbacks, telling the same story but from four different perspectives, each one identifying somebody different as a murderer. The crime is placed on the shoulders of Mexican outlaw, Juan Carrasco, who may very well have committed it, though there’s a sense of the authorities just waiting to lynch him for something. The story goes that Carrasco tricked a wealthy southern gentleman into buying some Aztec treasure he discovered, only for the man to find himself tied to a tree while Carrasco raped his wife. After that, someone killed the gentleman, but at Carrasco’s trial three different testimonies are offered – one by Carrasco, another by the wife, and finally one from the dying lips of the gentleman, as related by an Indian shaman – that don’t point to a single person as the killer. Who’s telling the truth? And will the fourth take on the incident reveal it?
The tale is chewed over by three individuals waiting at a lonely, rain-soaked station for a train that may never come. They are a disillusioned preacher (William Shatner), a prospector (Howard Da Silva) and Edward G Robinson’s con man, whose questions and badgering fuel the account-telling. The gentleman and his wife are Deep South lilting British actors, Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom, while Carrasco is a scenery-chewing Paul Newman. All the parts are well played, though special mention goes to Newman, almost unrecognisable as a swarthy bandit and putting on an outrrrrrrrrageous accent. His over the top rendition didn’t go down well with the critics, but in fact Newman researched the part by spending several months in Mexico, learning da lingo and mannerisms, and eventually losing himself in the part. I also thought Bloom was really interesting. Reprising her role from the Rashomon stage play, she nails it both as an innocent victim and as the harpy, and which version you believe more depends mainly on you.
If things fall apart, it’s in the fourth version of the murder. The three alternatives beforehand have all been handled seriously while the latter heads into comedic territory, which undermines the heavy, foreboding tone that the film has worked so hard to develop. It’s as if Ritt felt the audience would have had enough of the rape, murder and shame themes and shifts emphasis into near-slapstick. It’s a misstep, though things are put right again at the close as the unresolved central question leads to a surprisingly hopeful conclusion.
A note about the cinematography, which is rather lovely. Ritt mimicked Rashomon again by filming in black and white, but it works as The Outrage achieves a shadowy, almost noirish tone early. Unfortunately, the station occupied by the preacher, prospector and con man is studio-based and even the lack of colour can’t disguise what is clearly a matte painting as the background, but the location work is great. The camera casts a clear eye over much of the action, whilst the scenes in the glade where the murder is committed are filmed in a softer focus as though reflecting the blurred truth. There’s a particularly good moment in the wife’s testimony, which is shame-themed and sees Bloom imagining that she throws herself into the river, only for it to spit her back out again in sheer contempt.
The Outrage: ***