US (1964) Dir. Martin Ritt
John Sturges took Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai and turned it into The Magnificent Seven; Sergio Leone re-imagined Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as A Fistful Of Dollars; could it be a case of third time a charm for Martin Ritt as he follows suit by relocating Kurosawa’s Rashomon to the Wild West as The Outrage?
The conceit of the story is the truth behind the stabbing of a Southern gentleman (Laurence Harvey), for which a notorious bandit Juan Carrasco (Paul Newman) was eventually tried and convicted for. However as a disillusioned preacher (William Shatner) and a failed prospector (Howard Da Silva), who were both present at the trial, tell a cynical conman (Edward G. Robinson), the outcome isn’t so simple since the testimonies of Carrasco, the victim’s wife (Claire Bloom) and the victim himself – via an Indian shaman (Paul Fix) – all offer differing accounts of what happened.
While the original source material dates back to a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa first published in 1915, it is Kurosawa’s adaptation, which uses the bare bones of Akutagawa’s work, that is the rightful blueprint being copied by Ritt, by way of a stage play adaptation by Fay and Michael Kanin, in which Bloom also starred as the wife. Obviously with the two prior translocations from Japan to the western plains of the US (although Ritt may not have been aware of Leone’s film as they were both being made at the same time) one can be forgiven for seeing this as a mere cash-in on a proven formula.
However where The Outrage differs is how it sticks more closely to its inspiration rather than picking the salient bits and reworking them for their new locations and settings as the other two films did. The problem as ever is trying not to compare this film to Rashomon, since Kurosawa’s work is such monumental classic but by emulating the original, Ritt incurs this anyway. While this film does not deserve to be dismissed so easily, the fact it is not as famous as its two previously mentioned counterparts tells us plenty.
So, to the three testimonies which barely deviate from those detailed in Rashomon. Carrasco admits to tricking the victim off track to see to rare Aztec treasures but his true intention is to have his way with his wife. This aspect is played down compared to Rashomon’s due to Hollywood still being under the strict decency code but enough is implied for us to get the picture. This particular aspect is universal in all three accounts but what happens next changes from story to story, with the pivotal figure being the wife, who was either a dishonoured woman, a spiteful jezebel or a simple bystander as the two men entered into a duel.
But wait – there is a fourth account! An observer watched from afar and saw how the whole thing went down but didn’t come forward during the trial. Just as before, this version counters the other three so just who is telling the truth? And why did they not make themselves known in the name of justice?
As we have already discussed Ritt took many of his cues for this film from Kurosawa which makes The Outrage feel closer to Rashomon in both mood and aesthetic. A rarity in Hollywood, there is little in the way of a musical score with the sounds of nature providing the soundtrack and ambience for the most part. The film opens with the sound of pouring rain as the camera approaches the run down railway station where the preacher sits, joined shortly by the prospector and his mule.
The famous strolling shot of Rashomon, of the leaves of the trees as seen from underneath, is cheekily and briefly replicated later on here but not quite to the same effect. As Ritt also used the stage play as a template much of the film has that rigid feel to it, and this is mostly prevalent during the scenes in the clearing where the disputed crime took place. There may be some camera movement and there is a small stream nearby into which a fight spills over but the whole set up and the restricted movements of the cast involved gives the impression that this transposing of the stage play was taken a little too literally.
The other obvious difference that stands out the most is in the characterisations of the three main players. In today’s world the Mexican bandit would be seen as a lazy stereotype but for the sake of this story it makes sense. Casting Paul Newman who was a rising star hot of the success of Hud was a gamble, not in the least as he is barely recognisable here. While he makes a decent fist of it, he is too comical, especially the accent, and lacks the feral menace of Toshiro Mifune’s bandit in Rashomon.
Laurence Harvey is disappointingly wooden, often upstaged by the tree he is tied to, while Claire Bloom, reprising her stage role, picks up the slack, flitting between a prim and proper lady to a full own southern bell complete with hokey accent. Her character has less mystique of her Japanese counterpart, which we can put down to cultural differences, due to the Japanese women of that period noticeably beholden to the social etiquette of women being subservient to their men.
William Shatner may have been two years away from Captain Kirk but even here he delivered his…lines…in that… famous… staccato style…of…his. Showing no signs of slowing down Edward G. Robinson was on top form as the loud con man listening with disbelieving ears to this complex tale.
If one is unaware of Rashomon then The Outrage will appear a well made, uniquely told western albeit with an occasional clunky script. Those already familiar with Kurosawa’s original will find this equally fascinating but the temptation to make comparisons between the two hard to resist.