Sunday, February 19, 2006

Or, Four Ways of Looking at The Outlaw.

1) Just the Facts, Ma'am: This film puts three historical figures from the Old West together in a western romance melodrama. Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), sheriff of Lincoln, New Mexico, is happy to see his rowdy old buddy Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) who has come to town looking for the varmint who stole his strawberry roan horse. That person is young Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel), and Doc and Billy enter into a strange friendship, which Doc resents, centered on stealing the horse back from each other. Billy also meets Rio (Jane Russell), Doc's hot-blooded girlfriend, and after an initial (and quite literal) roll in the hay that plays out like a rape, the two take up together, and even get married in secret (surely a ploy to get around the censors of the era). After some spirited chases involving lawmen and Indians, the relationships between the four are sorted out via some gun play and a clever trick that contradicts the historical record (as though historical accuracy was on anyone's mind) but leaves Billy alive to ride off with Rio in the end.

2) All the Fuss: Supposedly Howard Hughes made this movie primarily to show off his discovery Jane Russell, and much has been made of the way her breasts are highlighted here. I must say that at least one shot of Russell walking across the screen startled me right off the couch, but for the most part, she comes off as almost demure compared to the way many a starlet is exposed these days--she's got nothin' on Lil' Kim, for example.

3) A Gay Man Watching The Outlaw; or "Brokeback Outlaw": [Spoilers follow!] Though there's no doubt that both Doc and Billy are full of lust for Rio, and that Billy and Rio do some intense grappling, I found the most compelling love relationship to be the triangle of Doc, Billy, and Sheriff Pat (well, there's also Doc's horse, which Doc seems to like better than Rio but not as good as Billy, but who want to go there?). Pat and Doc have been friends for years, but Billy replaces Pat in Doc's affections (and "affections" is definitely the right word, as Hughes wasn't afraid to have the characters express real affection for each other). When Pat realizes what's happened, he reacts like a scorned lover, breaking things off with Doc "for good and all." In the end, with passions high all around, Doc threatens to kill Billy but instead shoots his ears, then hugs him. Pat kills Doc, but Billy ties Pat up and buries Doc as himself, so he can leave with Rio and let folks think that Pat killed him. Another gayish point: the relationship between Rio and Doc's maid (Mimi Aguglia) is a lot like that of Karen and Rosario on "Will & Grace."

4) The Good, the Bad, and the Gorgeous: I'm willing to concede the title of worst movie ever to either Plan 9 from Outer Space or Manos: The Hands of Fate, but this one is certainly in the running for Worst Movie Ever Made by Mainstream Filmmakers and Actors Who Should Have Known Better--though approached on a camp level, there are some perverse pleasures to be had. Hughes' direction is almost amateurish, the music (which loudly underlines every moment of excitement or humor) even worse. Even Mitchell and Huston, normally excellent actors, are at sea here. Buetel is, at times, absolutely beautiful, but as an actor, he's a glassy-eyed stick puppet. Published accounts have suggested that Hughes forced Buetel into a sexual relationship in exchange for a long-term contract, and for whatever reason, Hughes didn't let Buetel work for the next eight years. At any rate, his career never recovered from his association with Hughes. As far as the good, surprisingly enough, it's Jane Russell. She's sexy and is fine in her limited role; though she's theoretically the catalyst for most of the action, she has little to do in the last third of the film. I did have some fun watching this, but it really is a bad movie, and I'm astonished that some critics (including Maltin and Halliwell) cut it so much slack. Yes, it has its moments of campy fun, and the portrayal of the psychological aspects of the characters' relationships held some potential, but geez, is this ever a bad, bad movie. [TCM]

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