Let’s start out with the positive, because while The Outlaw is by and large absolutely terrible it does still manage to do a few things in fresh and unique ways. Namely, it gives us a group of four characters and watches as they consistently change allegiances and tries to delve into their psychology. It never reaches much depth, but it at least gives us a central conceit of perceived wrong-doings and friendship crumbling away. The history it presents is highly dubious, but it presents Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday as old friends who find themselves at odds over Billy the Kid. The trio’s relationship at times dips into a kind of campy homoeroticism in which it appears as if Garrett is jealous over Holliday’s replacing him with a new, younger lover.
Great actors like Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell are left to their own devices with the poorly written dialog and plot mechanics. They try their damnedest to create in this vacuum, but even their immense gifts as versatile and diverse character actors can’t help the sinking feeling that The Outlaw has in spades. Jane Russell and Jack Buetel are very attractive to look at, but that’s pretty much all that they are. Wooden acting would be a compliment to the kind of shoddy work they turn out, as if they have no respect or knowledge of the craft involved in making a performance come to life and really work.
The stagey, artificial looking sets and ham-fisted direction continue with this line of thought. There is nothing much of value going on with The Outlaw. And the movie routinely appears to have been made by someone who doesn’t have the firmest grasp on moviemaking shorthand or basics. Every joke is pounded home and punctuated by a reoccurring thorn note horn beat in a manner that even a Looney Tunes short would find excessive. In fact, there are only two bits of music which alternate back-and-forth between the jokey horn beats and the more dramatic flourishes of pure bombast. The Outlaw seems best remembered for causing a raucous upon its first release than for any particular artistic merits. Nowadays this is mostly G-rated, except for the sequence where Billy clearly rapes Rio before she falls in love with him, but the controversy from the era gives the film a sexy, dangerous edge that it doesn’t really deserve. Sure Jane Russell shows off a lot of cleavage, but so did a lot of other starlets back in the day. The Outlaw is the purest example of the film industry hype-machine working over-time. It’s an even better documentation of the fractured and disturbed mind/obsessions of Howard Hughes; it’s sometimes director, financier and full-time eccentric.