Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Outlaw (1943)

After the 1986 Stagecoach, I had a hankering for another Doc Holliday movie that wasn’t a Wyatt Earp/Tombstone one (just because I’m overly familiar with that story and wanted something different). Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw barely qualifies, but I didn’t know that when I started it.

Walter Huston is Doc Holliday in name only. He’s got the easygoing outsider demeanor that the character needs, but not the tuberculosis or any other historical details that identify Doc. Instead of being pals with Wyatt Earp, his law-keeping buddy is Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell, who played Doc Boone in the ’39 Stagecoach; small world). Garrett of course became famous in history for killing Billy the Kid.

Billy is the third major character in The Outlaw. Jack Buetel was a brilliant choice to play him. He was 26 when the movie was shot, but looks about 17. And he’s great at balancing Billy’s laid-back charm with a darker temper.

After the break: friendship, darkness, and Jane Russell.

The movie is most famous for introducing the world to Jane Russell and her breasts, but her character is just a prop – though an important one – in the relationship between the three leads. The film opens as Doc rides into the town where Garrett’s just been appointed sheriff. Doc asks about a horse that was stolen from him in the last town back and later sees the horse outside a dentist’s office. (It can’t be a coincidence that it’s a dentist’s office when Doc was a dentist himself, but that’s never mentioned in the movie.) The horse – a strawberry roan named Red – is now the property of Billy the Kid, who claims he bought it in the same town where it was stolen.

Doc and Billy argue over the horse and Doc asks Garrett to get involved. Garrett does, but when Doc – seeing something in Billy that he likes – decides to forgive the Kid, Garrett still wants to bring him in. Doc protects Billy against Garrett, humiliating the sheriff and creating a rift that the rest of the movie is spent exploring. Doc and Billy continue arguing over Red and the argument is carried over to their relationship with Doc’s girlfriend Rio (Russell).

Rio’s a miserable character. We first meet her when she’s trying to kill Billy in an act of revenge. Billy killed her brother in what sounds like a fair gunfight, but she doesn’t care and attacks him anyway. I can buy that, but not what follows. Billy overpowers her and rapes her – which is shocking enough – but the most horrible part is that this directly leads to her falling in love with him. When Billy is later shot by one of Garrett’s men and Doc takes him to Rio’s house to convalesce, Rio at first seems angry about it, but that’s revealed to be no more than false tension for dramatic purposes. Rio is actually smitten by the young rapist and nurses him back to health.

During Billy’s recovery there are no end of scenes in which Rio looks longingly at Billy and moves to him off camera as the music swells and the we watch the wall or something while Rio does whatever she’s doing. It’s pretty hot.

Anyway, when Doc returns from leading Garrett on a wild goose chase, he finds that he and Billy also have to figure out who gets Rio as well as the horse. Rio’s wishes are never considered (she has them – she wants to stay with Billy – she just doesn’t get a voice in the discussion) and this is played for humorous effect. Both men would rather have the horse than her.

It gets worse when Rio – pissed off at both outlaws – sabotages their water supply and tells Pat Garrett which direction they went. When Billy figures out what happened, he goes back to Rio and tortures her by tying her up in the desert only feet away from a watering hole. It’s okay though, because he changes his mind and comes back for her.

I ended up liking exactly none of these characters, but being intrigued by all of them, which makes this sort of Western Noir, I guess. I won’t reveal the ending, except to say that it’s pretty tense. Doc and Billy never really know where they stand with each other, but Garrett’s the real wild card in the scenario. It’s impossible to tell whether his general good-naturedness and fondness for Doc will win out over his extreme anger at being humiliated and at Billy’s driving a wedge between him and his old friend.

Three out of five low-cut blouses.

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