Movie Review: The Outlaw (1943)

A movie so bad it’s fun to watch[1] ___ 4/10

Reposted from the previous post on October 22, 2014. — ed.

Prologue: “The Outlaw” is a story of the untamed West. Frontier days when the reckless fire of guns and passions blazed an era of death, destruction and lawlessness. Days when the fiery desert sun beat down avengingly (sic) on the many who dared defy justice and outrage decency.


Yeah, right. Avengingly?! Outrage decency?! Who wrote this stuff?

THIS MOVIE outrages decency!

Written by Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht
Screenplay Jules Furthman
Directed by Howard Hughes

Jack Buetel … Billy the Kid
Jane Russell … Rio McDonald
Thomas Mitchell … Pat Garrett
Walter Huston … Doc Holliday
Mimi Aguglia … Guadalupe
Joe Sawyer … Charley
Gene Rizzi … Stranger

From the gitgo, you can search far and wide for a connection between Billy the Kid (William Bonney, played by Jack Buetel) and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and you’ll never find one. But who knows whose idea it was—the director Hughes or the writers Hawkes and Hecht—to mess with history so blatantly. My guess is Hughes.

Another thing: the musical score is the first-movement theme of Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74, ‘Pathétique’ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1893). I kid you not, Hughes goes positively surreal on the music. About the only connection to that period in the American West is that it’s the second half of the 19th century. This symphony by Tchaikovsky has been standard fare in orchestra halls in the West, like forever, appealing to the wealthy urban elites with refined and educated musical tastes. Pathetique has this connotation of majestic sadness… totally disjoint from a bunch of goofy hillbillies wandering around bantering inanities in the New Mexican desert.

I can almost buy the Doc Holliday characterization by Walter Huston, who’s close to 60 years old in 1943. He’s a young-looking 60. But Thomas Mitchell, who plays Pat Garrett, is a short, chubby 51, and looks as much like a rough, hardy Western lawman as your Aunt Milly. But Huston and Mitchell are at least recognizable actors, and considering the lame dialog that overwhelms this picture from start to finish, they do lend the movie some respectability in the legitimate-thespian department.

The Epic Issue of the movie is the value of a man’s horse relative to the value of a woman. We start out with Billy the Kid coming into town and in a manner that is unclear, having stolen Doc Holliday’s prize stallion. This bit of horsely sneakiness sets the pattern for every other plot element in the movie: the characters talk, and talk, and talk, and talk about it, sometimes feigning to want to fight, sometimes giving a kind word, sometimes discussing women, sometimes discussing the legal situation, sometimes talking about the weather… you get the picture.

The Outlaw is very talky.

A roll in the hay

Billy the Kid then winds up in the stable with the horse, and someone attacks him. Turns out it’s… well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But at some point close to being attacked he’s wrassling with this big-chested girl named Rio McDonald (Jane Russell) and there’s some talking about who she is and it turns out Billy shot someone she knew… like a boyfriend or a brother. Then some more wrasslin’ after she goes after Billy with a pitchfork, and he comes up with the line:

“Hold still, lady, or you won’t have much dress left.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s an arousing line for a boy going through puberty in the 1940s. Or even the 1950s. But at no point in the wrassling sequence do we see even the hint of the 22-year-old Russell’s cleavage, or legs, or any torn clothing or mussed up hair. Way too much imagination required. Lines like that are obviously what passed for soft pornographic material in those days, and I have mixed feelings about it. Were people that hung up back in the day that this was the best a filmmaker could come up with to suggest sexual excitement?

It would seem so. And as I suggested in my recent reviews of An Affair to Remember (1957) and Gilda (1946), there must have been a sad lack of forthrightness—even deception—when it came to sex in the entertainment media back then. So in a way you have to give Howard Hughes snaps for at least broaching the subject on screen. Jane Russell was Hughes’ “find,” and his lover no doubt, and a whole lotta woman; The Outlaw is basically the presentation of a busty pinup way out of her acting league in a black-and-white D-movie (or is it triple-D?).

Big Smile

And, candidly, she wasn’t the Jane Russell bombshell I remembered from a few of her later movies. She was a very young 22 and retained a fair amount of that teenage homeliness a few Hollywood hotties seem to be stuck with until their mid-20s. (I’m thinking Jordana Brewster for one, and there’s another one who looks a bit like Jordana, but otherwise I’m drawing a blank.) Jane is pretty plain, all right, not that it matters.

“Wanna see me draw again?”[2]

After the wrasslin’ scene, some kids show up the next morning to see their hero Billy the Kid, and one of them has a stick he’s been whittling “to make a whistle.” The stick is about six inches long and one inch in diameter, and the boy is complaining that he can’t figure out how to make the hole lengthwise into the stick. All of a sudden the boy seizes on a thought: “Hey, Billy the Kid can shoot it through! C’mon, Billy, would ya, would ya, please, please?!”

So Billy says, “Well, okay then.” And he directs the boy to move about 10 paces away and hold up the stick with the long end pointing directly at Billy. Yeah, right. Sure enough, the boy moves away and holds up the stick without a care in the world. Billy says, “Hold it real steady, now.” Then the gunslinger draws his gun and, from the hip, shoots a clean hole lengthwise in the piece of wood held by the boy. (To give the scene some realism, the director has the boy drop the stick as if the perfect motion of the bullet lengthwise through the object stings his hand.) One can’t even begin to count the ways that this incident is physically ridiculous, even dangerous.

Don’t try this at home.

Some more double entendres… ‘n’ stuff

Next after the whistle-drilling affair, Billy and Doc go into this room. They’re still arguing about who’s going to keep the horse, and who’s faster than the other, etc. In come Pat Garrett and four men to arrest them for I don’t remember what. [Maybe ‘child abuse’ for endangering that boy with the block of wood.] Garrett shoots Billy, not even giving him an opportunity to draw. Somehow the wounded Billy manages to get on his (Doc’s) horse while Doc covers him from Garrett and the others. Where does Billy ride?

Hmmm, let’s see. I don’t really want to give away any of the intricate plot, but let’s just say Billy winds up where Rio and her Aunt Guadalupe live. Rio, who the last time she was with Billy attempted to kill him with a pitchfork, has a change of heart now that he’s wounded. But when she works to remove his shirt with a Bowie Knife you may start wondering. She falls in love with him, and supposedly nurses him back to health. Here’s where we do get some excellent cleavage action, when she leans over the bed and tells him, “You’re not going to die, I’ll get you warm.” Marvelous.

Somewhere in this sequence of scenes she comes to him—the camera showing her face by itself full screen, eyes shut, lips parted, and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth playing in the background. “Billy, you’re not well enough…” We see her lips all my themselves full screen, and the implication is that they woulda coulda have had sex. But someone arrives, and she has to leave him alone in the bedroom. Then for what seems like 30 minutes, the camera stays on the knotty old door jam. Seriously. Hughes has to have been higher than a kite when he made this movie. That night we see a fire in the fireplace and Billy is delirious. The question is will he give up the woman for Doc’s horse?

The men go on the run some more, there are some more strange scenes with sado-masochistic overtones, e.g.

[Pat and Doc rescue Rio, whom Billy has left bound, gagged and strung up by her wrists within sight of a desert waterhole]
Doc Holliday: You know, I think he’s in love with you.
Rio: What are you talking about?
Doc Holliday: The crazier a man is for a woman, the crazier he thinks and the crazier he acts.

… and misogyny:

Doc Holliday: There’s nothing a woman wouldn’t do for ya or to ya.

So the acting is mostly wretched, the sets remind you of some farmer’s old dirty basement, Jane Russell is really not that hot, you get about three seconds of bodacious cleavage but no sex. (I don’t even remember if Billy and Rio actually kiss.) Production values are like a home movie, picture clarity is like the bottom of a Coke bottle, and the music is pretentious. The notes on IMDb say this movie was banned in a lot of cities in the 1940s. For what? Embarrassing Hollywood?

But I do admire Hughes for trying to be honest about his feelings in the middle of a culture running amok on conformity and sexual repression. I absolutely do recommend sparking a choice doobie for the DVD experience.


[1] If you’re smoking dope… which is clearly what the director was doing while he made it.

[2] This is a reference to the children’s dialog where one boy will say, “You wanna see me draw?” Then he’ll just stand there with his hands on his hips, and after a moment say, “You wanna see it again?” Haw Haw.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Outlaw (1943)

  1. My personal review of this movie is 100% agreeable with this review. After watching it for over an hour, I thought it was so bad it was becoming fun to watch, and I was looking forward to TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz’s epilogue when it was finally over. In his introduction to the movie he hinted that his epilogue about the pruduction might be more entertaining than the movie itself.

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