In 1951 Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) took the world by storm when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won the prestigious Golden Lion. Rashomon winning that award is considered to be the breakout moment in Japanese film; the moment when the West suddenly became very, very aware of what the East was capable of with a movie camera.
Why does any of this matter? The Outrage is a remake of Rashomon
By the time The Outrage entered theaters on October 8th of 1964, two Akira Kurosawa films had already been transplanted into the west: Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven (dir. John Sturges), and Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars (dir. Sergio Leone). But while Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are fairly straightforward from a narrative standpoint, Rashomon could be best described as a visual maze of conflicting thoughts and ideas. It was a film that would be difficult, but interesting, to translate into the old west for a western audience, and The Outrage does an admirable job.
The film revolves around the rape of a woman (Claire Bloom) and the murder of her husband (Laurence Harvey) by the bandit Juan Carrasco (Paul Newman). Straightforward on the surface, but the plot is framed within a framing device. The main narrative concerns three men waiting for a train at an abandoned depot during a rain storm; a Catholic Priest (William Shatner), a Prospector (Howard De Silva), and a Con Man (Edward G. Robinson). The Priest is going to leave the small desert town because of what he witnessed at the murder trial and the Prospector has followed him to try and change his mind; meanwhile the Con Man is actually waiting on the train to arrive and simply becomes interested in hearing the story. This is our main framing device.
From there the Priest and Prospector tell us about the trail, and about the testimonies given at the trial. This is our second framing device. Finally we move into the grove where it all happened and see it for ourselves.
But do we really? The important thing to remember is that we’re not seeing the actual events, we’re having them told to us; in fact, we’re having someone tell us what they heard someone else say happened. But even at that the tale grows stranger with every turn.
First Carrasco gives his testimony as the defendant and openly admits to having raped the woman and to having killed her husband. Shut and close case, right? But then the woman gives her testimony. She claims to have let Carrasco “rape” her and then says that she killed her husband.
Now comes the doosie: An old Indian Medicine Man claims to have spoken with the dead man’s spirit, and so he gives a third testimony while “channeling” the husband. What does he say? That Carrasco raped the wife, got into an argument with her, that she convinced Carrasco and her Husband to fight for her honor, and that the husband died by accident.
But which story is true? Does it matter? In Kurosawa’s original version it did not. In fact, trying to make sense of Rashomon only makes things worse when you realize how inconsistent what you’re being shown (and told) is. But The Outrage isn’t quite a sure as the original film, feels the needs to fill in blanks that don’t really need to be answered, and ultimately robs the material of some of its impact.
Kurosawa’s experiment with the “truthfulness” or “reliability” of the cinematic form of storytelling becomes a straightforward narrative experience, devoid of any narrative ambiguity. Really though, that’s my only complaint. Other than The Outrage being a “safe”, easy to understand adaption of a very confusing and complex film, there isn’t anything else about the movie to not like.
Across the board the film features strong performances. While Paul Newman’s character might be a somewhat “stereotypical” Hispanic Bandito, the performance is surprisingly strong, and Newman manages to channel some of the ferocity of the original performance by Toshiro Mifune without overplaying it. Meanwhile Laurence Harvey plays it straight at the husband, and Claire Bloom comes across as crazy and vindictive, a perfect match for the material.
At the train depot, William Shatner turns in a fittingly underplayed performance as the priest (I didn’t recognize him), and Edward G. Robinson turns on the charm as the Con Man. Really the only less than stellar performance is Howard Da Silva as the Prospector who manages to only be okay in what is an otherwise very well acted film.
From a technical standpoint it’s easy to see that Martin Ritt and his cinematographer James Wong Howe studied not only Rashomon but other Kurosawa films (compare the scenes of running horses to similar scenes in Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood to see what I mean).
Overall The Outrage manages to be a fine film, and a decent adaption/remake of the original film. It muddles with some of the plot details unnecessarily, but still manages to get the point across — even if it lacks the impact –, and features a cast of overall very strong performances.
It’s a good flick and an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. I say check it out if you can.
Here is the trailer courtesy of TCM.com (sorry, their embed code refuses to work).