August 29, 2011

Queer Review: The Outlaw (1943)

The Outlaw
Directors: Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks
Writers: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht
Cast: Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell, Walter Huston, Mimi Aguglia, Joe Sawyer, Gene Rizzi

Howard Hughes' The Outlaw features the legendary wild west gunslingers Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday, alongside Sheriff Pat Garrett. It caused the Hays Code Censors quite a bit of trouble, thanks to Russell's cleavage and Hughes had to create a media stir just to get the film released. Jane Russell's career was launched with The Outlaw thanks to all of the hubub caused by her breasts. However the most interesting element is the homoerotic subtext between Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid.

When Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) arrives in town searching for his stolen horse, he finds his old friend, and newly appointed Sheriff, Pat Garett (Thomas Mitchell), along with his horse in the possession of Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). Surprisingly, Doc takes an immediate liking to Billy, much to the chagrin of Pat. When Billy later kills a man and is shot by Pat as a result, Doc comes to Billy's rescue and leaves Billy in the care of his girlfriend, the beautiful and sensuous Rio (Jane Russell). It is not long however, before Pat catches up with the two outlaws, setting up a final showdown between Pat, Billy, and Doc.

The Queering
It is easy to see why this film caused the stir it did upon first release. Jane Russell's bosom's push against a lot more than the proverbial envelope and the dialogue is loaded with double entrende's so thick, that even the most experienced wordsmith would choke before committing them to paper.

However, that all pales in comparison to the jilted triangle that develops between Doc holiday, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrison. Rio is supposedly the woman that comes between the Doc and Billy, but Pat more often plays the part of the scorned lover. The Sheriff Pat spends more of the movie competing for the affections of Doc, who only has eyes for Billy, then Doc does pining for Rio while she tries to ensnare Billy, who never shows any interest in her. Further hints of homoerotic desires among the three male leads include actual physical contact. When Doc first meets Pat, the outlaw can hardly keep his hands off the Sheriff. Throughout the movie, Billy and Doc keep reaching into each other's shirt pockets to exchange a tobacco pouch and at the conclusion they both hold hands briefly. Not to mention, the showdown that proceeded the hand holding is rife with sexual tension as Billy must make a choice about what is really important to him.

Unfortunately, this means that Rio herself is treated mostly like a prop whose purpose is to either show some distracting cleavage or to serve some need of the script. She usually ends up playing second fiddle to the stolen horse in terms of the priorities of either Doc Holiday or Billy the Kid. More disturbing though, are the borderline misogynistic statements from Doc or Billy whenever they try to explain to each other their lack of interest in woman.

Overall, I must say that The Outlaw is not a terribly good movie. The acting is pretty bad, with Jack Beutel appearing to be in some sort of "Greatest Wooden Actor" contest. There are also issues with the editing and the cinematography is a little odd at times. There was one moment that I want to say was an issue with Netflix streaming where during the climax, the film looped back and repeated a minute or two of dialogue, but given the technical competency shown up to that point, could have been a mistake from the original film.

On the plus side, the sequence with Indians chasing the band of heroes across the plain manages to generate some suspense. Of course this sequence is somewhat racist and historically inaccurate, but until Dances With Wolves came along, nearly every western made in Hollywood was. Also, it's interesting to note that the movie sets up a feud between Sheriff Pat Garrison and Billy the Kid, one that can only end in murder. For those who don't know, Garrison is believed to have been the individual who was responsible for the death of Billy the Kid, although The Outlaw's connection with history is often so tenous, it would not take much more force then the breeze needed to blow a tumble weed to sever it entirely.

The Outlaw may not have been deserved to have been outlawed by the Hays Code, but it's also not worth seeking out, other than for those with an interest in movies with queer or homoerotic subtexts.

The Rating


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