THE OUTLAW: Blu-ray (RKO, 1943) Kino Lorber

What a queer one Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) is – and not just for its gay subtext; a fairly transparent lover’s triangle between Thomas Mitchell’s portly Pat Garrett, Walter Huston’s lanky reincarnation of Doc Holliday, and, Jack Buetel’s pubescent Billy the Kid The iconography of these towering ‘real life’ figures from the ole west get the lavender whitewash herein – all of it over a red-haired pony! But no, all this went completely over the heads of Hollywood censors, ironically more concerned with flashes of female flesh heaving heavy sighs. Those seeking truth in cinema or an exaltation of these aforementioned legends would do wisely to steer clear of The Outlaw. It has virtually no basis in fact. For the record, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday would have been in their early thirties when this story takes place, not Mitchell’s 56 years young to Huston’s spry 60. Alas, it makes the homo-erotic spectacle, watching two old queens via for the affections of a virile young stud, all the more salacious. Either Billy wants to ride Doc’s pony – literally – or Doc, Billy’s – leaving poor Pat resentful he has not been invited to their coming out party.
The Outlaw is a western in name only, far more hyped as a showcase for the natural-born assets of its costar, Jane Russell. In reflection, playwright and wit, George S. Kaufman squarely surmised the strength of The Outlaw’s infamy at the time as ‘a tale of two titties’. Aptly put, indeed, and point to Mr. Kaufman, considering Hughes’s mad obsession to mold Russell’s grand canyons into great movie art. Alas, the chasm between them proved an even greater divide amid ‘good taste’ and ‘personal best’. This resulted, first, in the firing of Hughes’ original choice of director, Howard Hawks (Hughes, assuming the reigns) and then, Hughes, plying his engineering skills to a new cantilevered underwire bra; the impetus for a decade’s launch into pointy rubber-cupped braziers, guaranteed to knock men’s eyes out if not actually poking them blind. Of course, the real irony for those who care about such things, is Jane Russell never actually wore Hughes’ contraption in The Outlaw, nor was there anything in the movie to arouse the male gaze, much less rival Russell’s sultry and provocative posing for stills, embellished by Hughes’ publicity department for the movie’s marketing campaign and poster art.
As for Hughes’ bra - its crude construction cut into Russell’s flesh (how sexy is that?), causing her to discard it after only a few moments. Instead, Russell wore her own bra, padding the cups with tissue and lying to Hughes during the shoot. “He wasn’t going to take my clothes off to check if I had it on,” Russell later reflected, “I just told him I did.” Although The Outlaw was completed early in February 1941, Hughes’ personal investment of nearly $2 million looked as though it might be lost after Hollywood’s Production Code Administration denied him their coveted Seal of Approval. What followed became a legendary ‘pissing match’ of sorts; Hughes, using all his wiles as a marketing prodigy to fuse, fuss and finesse his chances of getting the picture into wide release. This would take nearly six years. In the interim, and, at their behest of the purveyors of the Code, Hughes did remove roughly 30 seconds of ‘breast baiting’ from the final cut, only to have 2oth Century-Fox cancel their arrangement to distribute the picture anyway. 
Ever resourceful, Hughes set about concocting a ‘negative’ marketing campaign to encourage public outcry from religious and women’s groups. Naturally, this made the picture’s viability as a potential money maker even more tantalizing to ole Hollywood. Nevertheless, and in hindsight, Hughes’ epic battle with the Hays Office helped to loosen the yoke on ‘permissible kink’. By today’s standards, the conflict to get The Outlaw ‘out’ to the public is laughable. It was effectively released for one week only in 1943 by RKO before receiving world-wide distribution thru United Artists three years later when it instantly became a huge hit, earning back double Hughes’ initial investment.  It’s really too bad for The Outlaw Hughes knew absolutely nothing about picture-making, despite knowing an awful lot about the biz. Howard Hughes is certainly no Howard Hawks. And replacing legendary cinematographer, Lucien Ballard with the as accomplished, Gregg Toland isn’t exactly the problem either, despite their stylistic disparities. No, the most egregious misfire is Hughes’ disregard for Jules Furthman’s carefully constructed screenplay, originally hewn along the lines of enmity, amity, and honor; edicts that, in Hughes’ hands, are transformed into a rather seedy gumbo of sex-starved innuendo and cliché.  
Despite its general lack of tact and disregard for the truth, never to be unearthed in these legendary knock-offs, actors Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston make up some enviable ground on the sheer temerity of their acting chops. Huston gets the lion’s share of juicy dialogue; Mitchell, the doleful dotage.  Not so much, Jack Buetel – whose interminable pauses between lines gives the distinct impression an off-camera assistant is not toggling through his over-sized cue cards fast enough. And Jane Russell, naïve at nineteen, is hardly up to the challenge of playing the sexy half-breed spitfire, Rio; as uncomfortable at wielding a pitchfork in faux anger at Buetel’s Billy (he killed her brother), as later, to surrender the night in his bed (albeit, after Billy is stricken with the fever). It must be love.
The Outlaw begins on a pleasant note: Sheriff Pat Garrett informed by his deputy (Ben Johnson) that Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) has arrived in Lincoln, New Mexico. Doc’s reputation as a notorious gambler/gunslinger has preceded him. But Doc is Pat’s friend…or so he believes. Actually, Doc is in search of his stolen pony. Informed by the saloon keeper, Pablo (Julian Rivero) the horse is in the possession of Billy the Kid, Doc hurries to reclaim the animal. But then something unexpected occurs. The old campaigner takes a shine to this brash young buck who refuses to back down. Pat tries to twist his hand. Instead, the Kid flattens him with a single punch. Pat is humiliated, even more so when Doc elects to back Billy up. The two are seen around town, partaking of poker matches and enjoying each other’s slightly adversarial company. Doc still wants to reclaim his horse, leaving Billy to bunk with the animal in the stable and thus, ensure it remains exactly where he left it. Regrettably, Billy encounters Rio MacDonald – the sultry peasant girl whose brother he murdered in another town before the plot to this movie began. Rio fires several shots at the Kid but is unable to wound him. The two adversaries wrestle in the barn and Rio next attempts to stab Billy with a nearby pitchfork. Again, she loses. Billy straddles the girl, and in barely recognizable silhouette, Hughes implies a rape has occurred.  
The next day, a complete stranger (Gene Rizzi) proposes to remove a thorn from Billy’s side. The murder of Pat Garrett would certainly be a feather in the Kid’s cap. Billy wisely concurs he is being set up. The stranger draws his gun on him and Billy – a superior shot – shoots the stranger dead instead. As there are no witnesses, and owing to the Kid’s reputation, Pat tries to pin the crime as a cold-blooded murder rather than self-defense. Surrounded by his deputies, Pat endeavors to place the Kid under arrest. Instead, Doc sides with Billy and effortlessly shoots the gun from Pat’s hand, killing two of Pat’s deputies in the process. More embarrassed by the ineffectiveness of his men, and, wounded by Doc’s renewed shift in his loyalty, Pat dissolves his friendship with Doc and vows to avenge the dishonor should their paths ever cross again.
Believing they can now exit the saloon without further reprisals, Doc and Billy’s slow retreat is met with surprise gunfire from Pat, who wounds the Kid in the gut. Doc helps the Kid to his feet and the two flee to a small stucco ranch on the outskirts where Rio and her aunt, Guadalupe (Mimi Aguglia) reside. Doc makes Rio promise to look after the barely conscious Kid. Rio is Doc’s girl and has been for some time. Despite her willfulness to avenge her brother’s murder, she agrees to care for the Kid. In a months’ time, the Kid is nursed back to health. The implication is Billy and Rio have also become lovers during this time.  Having eluded Pat’s posse, Doc doubles back, only to bitterly learn Rio is now Billy’s girl – not his.  After Doc’s anger subsides, the Kid gives him a choice: the horse or Rio. Disgusted both men should prefer the horse to her, Rio vengefully fills their canteens with sand. The men ride off together without noticing. However, only a short while later, Doc and Billy are pursued by Pat and his posse. Doc postulates Rio has tipped off the sheriff. While the Kid rides for higher ground Doc picks off a few of Pat’s men from a nearby rocky turret but leaves his ‘old friend’ unharmed.
Treason is the order of the day – perhaps, as Doc awakens at dawn to find Billy has fled and Pat is waiting to take him by force to hang for the murder of his men. Pausing for a moment’s respite at Rio’s farm, Doc and Pat discover the girl bound and gagged near the well – obviously, the Kid’s revenge for her filling his canteen with sand. Doc proposes he and Pat hide out and wait for Billy’s return. Despite his actions, the Kid is obviously in love with the girl and sure to return for her. Sure enough, the Kid arrives and is taken prisoner by Pat. Regrettably, on the way back to town the trio encounters hostile Mescaleros. Pat is compelled to free his prisoners and give them their revolvers with the understanding that if they survive they will agree to accompany him into town to stand trial. Making good on their getaway, Doc refuses to honor his word. Billy is disappointed. Even among thieves there is such a thing as a ‘code of honor’. So, Billy and Doc elect to duel it out on the count of eight from a nearby cuckoo clock as Pat and Rio look on. Pat believes Billy will lose. But even after Doc has strategically fired three bullets, superficially grazing the Kid’s ears and his hand, Billy refuses to draw on him.
Sincerely touched by this gesture, Doc and Billy reconcile, much to Pat’s chagrin. In an effort to provoke a fatal confrontation, Pat calls Doc out. But Doc makes no attempt to shoot his old friend and pays the supreme price when Pat fatally wounds him instead. Aghast by what he has done, Pat helps Billy bury Doc in a grave adjacent the farm. After the burial, Pat suggests the Kid take Doc’s pistols and give him his. Pat claims he can tell everyone he shot Billy the Kid, the bounty on his head expunged, affording the Kid a fresh start in life. Once again, this proves a ruse – Pat, having removed the firing pins from Doc’s pistols. The Kid hands over what he believes to be his own guns to Pat and Pat, now points them at the Kid, vowing revenge. Too bad for both men, each has inherited one of the pistols with the missing pin. As neither gun will fire, but Billy is faster on the draw, he now holds Pat at gun point; the scene dissolving to Pat, handcuffed to a wooden pillar on the front porch. Annoyed for the last time, Pat chooses to remain silent rather than disclose to all the Kid got the better of him. As the Kid prepares to hightail it out of town for good, he pauses for just a moment, beckoning Rio to rejoin him. Ebulliently, she mounts Doc’s horse, the pair riding into the sunset.  
The Outlaw hails from a period in Hollywood’s mythologized western folklore rife for experimentation. In Hughes’ case - for parody too.  The picture’s offbeat plot and torpid pacing turn the conventions of the western movie on end with an almost sensational indifference for good – even competent – storytelling. Hughes’ twin passions – a.k.a. Jane Russell’s bosom – are the only assets front and center, if slightly wobbling from side to side; the one constant in two disposable hours of meandering nothingness.  I am sincerely amazed Jack Buetel had a career after The Outlaw; his undeniably appeal as male eye candy blunted by the fact he cannot act his way out of a paper bag. I have even more admiration for Jane Russell who rebounded from this inauspicious debut. By 1951, Russell could be counted upon for her razorback sass and telescopically focused comedic timing, appearing to great effect in movies like His Kind of Woman (1951), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and, The French Line (both in 1953). Decades later she would mark a ‘return’ of sorts to her infamous reputation from The Outlaw; this time, as spokeswoman for Platex’ ‘Cross Your Heart’ bra.
Kino Lorber’s 2K restoration of The Outlaw is a mixed blessing at best. While ahead of various bootlegs to have proliferated the home video market since the mid-1980’s, most taken from poorly contrasted 16mm dupe negatives, this 1080p remastering offers only modest improvements in both picture and sound. The image is soft. Film grain is amplified. Scenes shot at dusk or night suffer the most, with a barrage of optical streaks and age-related debris taking their toll. Certain scenes fare better than others. But this transfer falls well below acceptable standards. As The Outlaw is unlikely to ever inspire a ground-up restoration (it’s no Citizen Kane!) this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video. The audio is scratchy in spots, exhibiting an extremely strident characteristic. You will want to keep your speakers tuned to a slightly lower than usual decibel level to avoid undue crackle and a wafer-thin layer of background hiss.  

Kino affords us an informative audio commentary from critic/author, Troy Howarth. I confess, I enjoyed Howarth’s track more than I did the movie. He speaks with an ease that belies the fact he must be reading some of this stuff from well-researched notations. And he can almost make me believe the end result is worthy of preservation as a cultural artifact in the cinema firmament. We also get trailers for The Outlaw and a few other westerns Kino is hoping you will want to buy from them. Bottom line: The Outlaw is a pretty silly and egregiously juvenile picture; Hughes’ female fixation exposed for what it is. Oh, what he might have created if his level of good taste had rivaled his bank account and showman’s chutzpah! Final thoughts: pass and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)