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At a railroad station in the American Southwest in the 1870s, three men a con artist, a preacher and a prospector exchange stories about the trial of a Mexican bandit sentenced to hang for the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. Three witnesses at that trial (the accused, the wife and an elderly Indian) gave three widely divergent accounts of what happened, and now as the men talk at the station, even more versions emerge. In restagings of the incident ranging from harsh realism to physical humor, the nature of truth and human nature is examined
The Outrage (1964) is a remake of an early film by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon (1950), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Motion Picture. Writers Michael and Fay Kanin (he was the brother of writer-director Garson Kanin) adapted the story into a stage play, keeping the title and the medieval samurai setting. During its theatrical run in 1959, Rod Steiger played the accused killer-rapist and his then wife Claire Bloom played the wronged woman. Adapting it for the screen, Michael Kanin and director Martin Ritt shifted the setting to the Old West and changed the samurai character into a south-of-the-border outlaw, handing the role to top box office star Paul Newman, and casting as the husband Laurence Harvey, a British actor also enjoying considerable success after acclaimed work in such films as Room at the Top (1959), Butterfield 8 (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Bloom, who had effectively divided her time between stage and screen after a tremendous career boost, courtesy of Charles Chaplin, in Limelight (1952), was retained from the stage cast.
For good measure, producers also secured the talents of veteran star Edward G. Robinson and up-and-coming actor William Shatner, who later achieved television stardom as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series. Despite such high-octane names attached to the project, the film was not compared favorably to the original and was almost universally panned by critics.
Oddly enough, The Outrage remains one of Newman's favorite films. He certainly put a lot into the role, seeing it as an opportunity to expand his range beyond the contemporary urban American types for which he was known. The actor traveled to Mexico and spent considerable time among the local people in order to research the role and to learn the accent. Most reviewers found his acting to be overdone and his dialect so thick that (in the words of the New York Times critic, "He sounds like a parody of the Mexican villains in old movies." Despite the critical drubbing, however, Newman continued to defend it as one of his best performances, probably because of his attraction to the bravura nature of the role, which had him replaying the rape-murder scene from different points of view.
It's also quite likely the star's high regard for The Outrage is due to its being another in a string of challenging and mostly successful collaborations with Martin Ritt. A former stage and screen actor who after World War II began directing for the stage and then television, Ritt's small-screen career had been cut short by the Hollywood blacklist (a theme he returned to later in The Front, 1976). Barred from directing for several years, Ritt made his living teaching at the famed Actors Studio, where his students included Newman, Steiger and Newman's later wife Joanne Woodward. His direction of Arthur Miller's acclaimed stage play, A View from the Bridge, in 1956 grabbed the attention of Hollywood, and he made his feature debut with the gritty waterfront drama Edge of the City (1957), starring John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier. Famous for inspiring outstanding performances from ensemble casts in often controversial, socially relevant dramas, Ritt is not usually associated with the Western. He did, however, make a few successful forays into the genre, notably in Hombre (1967) and the modern-day western Hud (1963), which earned him an Oscar® nomination as Best Director.
These last two films starred Paul Newman, one of six pictures he and Ritt made together, including The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and Paris Blues (1961). Ritt also worked frequently with cinematographer James Wong Howe, including all three of the above-noted westerns and on The Molly Maguires (1970).
Howe recalled the making of The Outrage in Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light by Charles Higham: "..The opening scene on the railroad station should have been on location. The studio had a backing done that was very artificial, very bad. I did a bad job too; I'm ashamed of it, but I just couldn't figure out what to do with that badly painted backing. The moment I put the light on it you could see what it was. Rain is the hardest thing in the world to light. It doesn't show up unless you backlight it. The camera moved 360 degrees at one stage; and that made it very hard to backlight. Sometimes I could only light half the rain, and it would blur away at the bottom of the frame. It was very uneven visually. And the results were no good. We should have used a dust-storm and done it on location."
One other notable curiosity about The Outrage: it was the first appearance of the beard that Edward G. Robinson wore for most of the rest of his life. "I grew it for the part," he later told writer Leonard Spigelglass, "but I decided to keep it because it was a new man up there with the old Little Caesar peeping through. A beard would enable me to be rid of him forever." Robinson was referring, of course, to one of his earliest roles - the gangster drama Little Caesar (1931) that catapulted him to stardom. Although he took on a wide range of roles over his many years in films, the pint-sized villain with the grating voice had shadowed the gentle, refined Robinson (who was also a notable painter) throughout his career, and with the beard he took on for The Outrage, he was obviously glad to be rid of him.
Director: Martin Ritt
Producer: A. Ronald Lubin
Screenplay: Michael Kanin, based on stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon and the play of the same name by Michael and Fay Kanin
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Frank Santillo
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Tambi Larsen
Original Music: Alex North
Cast: Paul Newman (Juan Carrasco), Laurence Harvey (Husband), Claire Bloom (Wife), Edward G. Robinson (Con Man), William Shatner (Preacher), Howard Da Silva (Prospector).
BW-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon