The Outlaw (1943)

Directed by Howard Hughes
Written by Jules Furthman

The Outlaw should prove to be one of the more interesting and unique entries in this westerns marathon for the simple fact that it comes with some controversy, some baggage. Howard Hughes, known to me more to be an eccentric billionaire who was an innovator and wanna-be filmmaker (excuse: this is the first film by him that I’ve actually seen), set out to make this film, and in doing do upset the famous Hays code by searching for noticeably buxom leading lady in Jane Russell. What was considered risque and inappropriate then would easily pass the MPAA these days, but for its time, the emphasis on Ms. Russell’s chest throughout the film drew attention and controversy, even delaying the release of the film as it fought to be passed. I fear all of this attention takes away from the film itself, however, which is dreadful in its own right.

I am unsure of Hughes’ motivations in making this particular film, but it is surrounded in western legend with the likes of Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). In this particular rendition, Holliday comes to town where his buddy Garrett is sheriff, but takes sides with the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid after the Kid kills a man who had drawn his guns on him. Holliday defies Garrett and takes Billy to his home, where his girl Rio (Jane Russell) takes care of the wounded Kid. Soon, Billy is falling for Rio, and vice versa, despite their intertwined past, and everything comes to a head when Holliday finds out about Billy and Rio while also trying to stay safe from Garrett’s bracelets and jail cell.

What puzzled me most about this film was, for how much attention it received, it not only wasn’t a very good film, but it didn’t feel very racy to me. Now, I am coming from a 2017 perspective, where Russell’s cleavage is near the norm in Hollywood anymore, but I can appreciate the perspective of more modest time when the various shots composed by Hughes and his cinematographer could incite a riot. The greater evil is just how poorly conceived the film ends up being, especially with the cast of characters involved, such western legends and even a few notable actors in both Huston and Mitchell, faces I’m familiar with.

The leading folly of the film is the extremely wooden acting throughout, a certain disappointment. This effort is lead by Jack Buetel, who is way out of his element here in terms of talent, as he does at least look the part even if he is more handsome than the real Billy the Kid. But even Huston feels to be sleepwalking through his lines at times, which is a great disappointment. Mitchell is the most competent of the cast, but the film focuses so much on Holliday, the Kid and Rio that he hardly graces the screen. And while not the leading folly, the worst offense of the whole film was the invading, grating and absolutely abhorrent film score provided by Victor Young. Its somehow more annoying than the wooden acting, feeling like its straight out of some wonky Saturday morning TV program.

I was actually excited to see this film, out of curiosity for what it might be. And it’s a film with a lot of potential, I’m just not sure I trust Howard Hughes as a filmmaker, even if he has Howard Hawks to help, as he does here. Again, I have no experience with Hughes, but I get a general sense that it was his way or the highway, and in some strange way he thinks big, broad, loud strokes make the best entertainment. It doesn’t. I’d probably also be remiss to end this review without mention of the homesexual undertones at play here, as Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday argue more over the horse than they do the girl. It just feels odd to me that Hughes would make such a big deal about finding someone like Russell to star in the film, and then underplay her attractiveness throughout, except for the viewer to see her ample cleavage. There was just a lot out of place here and none of it ever comes together, not even close. The Outlaw is a mess, but I’m glad I saw it.

** – Poor

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