The Outlaw (1943)
“SENSATION Too Startling To Describe!”
Director: Howard Hughes
Cast: Jack Buetel, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell
Synopsis: Western legends Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid are played against each other over the law and the attentions of vivacious country vixen Rio McDonald.
If Howard Hughes’ movie The Outlaw has any worth to speak of, it is to offer us reassurance that even hugely successful men like Him can be excruciatingly inept at something. Because The Outlaw is one of the most bizarre, badly acted, written and directed mainstream movies you’re ever likely to watch. And forget about all that publicity about Jane Russell’s breasts (as boobielicious as they undoubtedly are) — what really sets The Outlaw apart from other movies of its era is the outrageous gay subtext that sees three Western legends embroiled in a homosexual love triangle.
The legends in question are William ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney (Jack Buetel), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell — It’s a Wonderful Life, High Noon) and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston — Rain, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). In truth, Holliday never met the other two, but The Outlaw pays scant regard for truth as it explores the complex relationships between these three men. As the movie opens, Holliday and Garrett are good friends, but when a clash between Holliday and Bonney is resolved without violence, and with a mutually guarded admiration between the two men, Garrett grows increasingly jealous. Later, when Holliday changes his mind about helping Garrett to arrest Bonney, an inappropriately enraged Garrett tells them both to get out of town. However, Doc and the Kid retire to the local saloon where, after an obligatory shoot-out between Billy and some young gun out to make a name for himself, Doc offers Billy the use of a bunk for the night. Billy declines the Doc’s offer, choosing instead to bed down in the stable. It’s here that Billy encounters Rio (Jane Russell), who tries to gun him down in revenge for his killing her brother. Billy eventually overpowers the feisty Rio and rapes her in the darkness of the stable.
The irrelevance of women in Hughes’ warped world is illustrated by the way in which Rio’s rape by Bonney is dismissed as nothing more than a milestone in the growth of their rocky relationship. Rio isn’t so much a character in her own right as a device to introduce an undercurrent of conflict between Doc (Rio is his girlfriend, in the loosest sense of the word) and the Kid in much the same way as their power struggle over Doc’s horse, which Billy may or may not have stolen. In fact, as Doc and Billy both choose the horse over Rio at one point in the movie, she isn’t even afforded as much significance as the animal. And although Rio was angered enough over the death of her brother to make an attempt on Billy’s life, she seems to think nothing of his rape of her in the stable. So insignificant is Rio, it’s clear that little or no thought was given to developing a consistent and rational character for her.
The Outlaw rambles along with no real shape or form, pretending that Rio is its object of desire when she’s anything but. The film is essentially about a pair of old queens squabbling over the younger man who has come between them. Jack Buetel was reputedly a lover of the bi-sexual Hughes, which was why he won the role of Billy the Kid, even though he had no movie experience and was no better than an average actor. He was a looker though, and, as with Russell, Hughes wastes no opportunity to show off his physical beauty — you only have to witness his first scene in The Outlaw to understand how Hughes felt about his leading man. Something went wrong, though, and Hughes refused to allow Buetel to appear in another movie, dealing a near-fatal blow to the young actor’s movie career. It wasn’t until 1951, when his contract with Hughes had expired, that Buetel would appear on the screen again.
The Outlaw’s notoriety allowed it to overcome its sheer awfulness in terms of box office returns. And make no mistake about it — The Outlaw is a truly awful movie. Hughes’ direction is shockingly bad. Scenes seem to go on forever, remaining long after their narrative or emotional worth has been spent, and the camera is allowed to focus on inanimate objects for an inordinate length of time after an actor has left the screen. This is most noticeable when we are left to contemplate the corner of a door after Russell has walked past it for a full twenty seconds. Compounding Hughes’ incompetence is an intensely annoying musical score that simply doesn’t let up — we get everything from overblown emotional cues that swell and soar with unrelenting insistence to ‘humorous’ wa-wa-wa-waaah licks.
The Outlaw does possess a certain low-rent camp value, and the 20-year-old Jane Russell’s voluminous cleavage truly is a wonder to behold — although even that can’t keep us entertained for nearly two hours. Old troupers Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston give it their best shot — Huston more successfully than his less talented co-star — but the awfulness of the entire project eventually proves too much for both of them.
(Reviewed 21st March 2014)