The second and final film to be directed by quirky business tycoon Howard Hughes, 1943's The Outlaw tells the story of notorious outlaw duo Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel in his first feature film appearance) and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). When the film opens they meet and become fast friends, only for Billy to wind up shot and just barely escape capture from the law men out to put him away behind bars. Shortly after this occurs, it's decided that the two of them will law low at Doc's ranch for a little while. Here Billy, quite understandably, becomes infatuated with Holliday's comely mistress, Rio McDonald (Jane Russell in her big screen debut), and while he hardly treats her like a gentleman, it's clear that the attraction is mutual.
While the sexual tension mounts between those three, Sheriff Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) Stagecoach) and his well-armed posse of trigger happy cowboys are bound and determined to take these outlaws down once and for all.
Director Howard Hughes was a pretty eccentric guy and it's no shock that some of those eccentricities make their way into The Outlaw. The film has no concern whatsoever with historical accuracy, let's get that out of the way from the start. It also posits none so subtly that there's just as much attraction between Billy The Kid and Doc Holliday as there is between either man and the super sultry Rio. Light on gunfights and chase scenes but high on bizarre melodrama, the movie does score points for featuring some impressive cinematography, good costumes and highly detailed sets. The production values here are solid indeed, and that comes across on screen quite nicely.
That said, it's clear that Hughes was out to essentially go to war with the censors of the day. In an era where you couldn't show married couples sleeping in the same bed he was content to show Russell's character hoping into bed with a man she wasn't wed to as if it were no big thing. The Hayes Office disagreed, but Hughes fought them on this, at least for a while. Definitely the most sexualized western of its day, the movie stands out from the pack in a pretty big way. It might not be all that great in terms of its storytelling or plotting, but Hughes was savvy enough to know that by cramming a whole lot of sexual tension into the film that audiences would flock to see it. He was right, the film did quite well at the box office.
Jack Buetel and particularly Walter Huston are decent in their roles here. They played the hardened, grizzled outlaw types well. Likewise, Thomas Mitchell is just fine as Pat Garrett. All you have to do, however, is take one look at the cover art for this release (based on the film's original poster art) to know who the real star of the show is, and that's the gorgeous Jane Russell. Frequently clad in a blouse that barely contains her breasts, this is, to be blunt, a cleavage-centric film and Hughes puts her front and center throughout. He reportedly cast her based on a selection of pin-up photos that she'd posed for before she became an actress, she's little more than a sex object in the film but she smolders on screen. She'd go on to have a fairly strong career after this picture, starring in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and a few other noteworthy pictures that proved far better than her debut that she was quite a talented actress, but it was The Outlaw that made her a star.The DVD
Kino presents The Outlaw on DVD framed at 1.33.1 fullframe and looking quite good. The black and white picture shows nice contrast and solid detail for a standard definition presentation. Touted as being taken from a new 2k restoration, there's still some mild print damage visible throughout but for the most part the film is in pretty decent shape. Black levels are good, and the image is free of obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement.Sound:
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track has a bit of hiss here and there but is clean for the most part. Dialogue is easy enough to follow and the score and effects sound decent enough. Levels are properly balanced throughout. There are no subtitles or alternate language options of any kind provided.Extras:
The main extra on the disc is a commentary track from Troy Howarth that spends a fair bit of time commenting on the film's infamous cleavage-factory as well as discussing the film's history. He makes some interesting observations about the use of gay subtext in the film, comments on the performances, provides some background details on the cast and crew members responsible for the picture and more. He also talks about the director's battle with censors, its release history and its impact. It's a good listen and at times fairly amusing.
Additionally the disc includes a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Kino Studio Classics titles, menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
The Outlaw is worth seeing just for the presence of the stunning Jane Russell alone, but on top of thatů it's a pretty strange film for its type. It's easily the most sexualized western of its day, and a film that wound up breaking a considerable amount of new ground. Kino's DVD release looks and sounds decent enough and contains an interesting commentary track as its primary extra feature. Recommended.