The following is my entry in The 4th Annual SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from June 15-17, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ entries about movies that subtly suggest sex rather than graphically depicting it!
In the 1940’s, moviegoers went to The Outlaw to see Jane Russell’s much-ballyhooed breasts. What they got was the Brokeback Mountain of its time. Sad to say, there’s more chemistry between the three male leads than there is between Russell (playing sassy Rio) and Jack Buetel (as Billy the Kid).
Although the movie is most remembered as a Howard Hughes production — Russell was a receptionist in the office of Hughes’ chiropodist, and Hughes immediately became obsessed with her bust and the idea of exploiting it — The Outlaw actually has some powerhouse credits behind the camera. These include screenwriters Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht (both uncredited) and Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not); photographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane); and composer Victor Young (The Palm Beach Story). How Hughes could assemble a group like that, with the added insurance of Russell’s cavernous cleavage, and come up with such a blah movie is beyond my comprehension.
The story begins in Lincoln, NM, where Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) is the sheriff. Garrett greets his old friend Doc Holliday (Walter Huston), who is looking for his stolen horse. It turns out that Billy the Kid has the horse, though he claims to have bought it fair and square. Even though Doc and Billy spend the rest of the movie vying for the horse, they quickly become close friends, much to the consternation of Garrett, who now feels left out of the, er, threesome.
At one point, Billy decides to sleep out in the barn to protect the horse from getting stolen by Doc. He ends up having a scrape with Rio (which obviously inspired the movie’s famous tagline, “How’d you like to tussle with Russell?”). It turns out that Billy had killed Rio’s brother, and she wants vengeance and tries to stab Billy with a pitchfork. But Billy overpowers her, and the movie suggests (rather nonchalantly, IMHO) that Billy rapes her as well.
The next day, Billy gets in a gun battle in town and ends up getting shot by Pat, forcing Doc to shoot two of Pat’s men. Doc takes the wounded Billy to his home to recuperate, and as it turns out, Rio is there, the movie imply that Rio is Doc’s live-in lover. (How did they get that one past the censors?)
Doc asks Rio to take care of Billy while he rides off to escape Pat’s posse. At first, it appears that Rio is going to murder Billy, but instead she nurses him through a month-long coma. Doc has told Rio to keep Billy from getting chills that would kill him, and so — to the gratification of salivating moviegoers — Rio begins to take off her clothes, declaring, “I’ll keep him warm.” Because of course, in a script by three male screenwriters, it’s only natural that Rio would fall in love with the guy who raped her.
Eventually Doc returns to find that Rio is in love with Billy, and after that, it’s a contest as to which dreary romantic rivalry will eventually win out — Rio and Billy, Rio and Doc, or (let’s face it) Doc and the embittered Pat.
At this blog, I’ve previously declared what I refer to as “The Adrienne Barbeau Theorem” — that theorem being that big breasts, in and of themselves, are not a compelling enough reason to sit through a terrible movie. The Outlaw proves that theorem in spades.
‘40s males must have been delighted with the views they got of Russell’s blossoming bosom, but the story that bookends those views is so dull, it doesn’t even make for good movie camp. The publicity stills of Russell reclining among bales of hay (including the image at the top of this review) are far sexier than anything in the movie. Russell’s character is a cipher, and she even more so. One would never have guessed from this movie debut that Russell could be a very good actress and comedienne, she’s so one-note here.
Finally, the males in the movie are a perfect example of why I don’t like Westerns. They aim their guns at each other and talk more about shooting each other than they actually do. You’d think their ammo was macho conversation rather than bullets. What is it about boys and their toys?