Outlaw Blues

Director: Richard T. Heffron
Peter Fonda, Susan Saint James, John Crawford

For this web site, I do a lot of research. When I come across a promising looking movie, I go on the Internet and flip through the many movie books in my personal library to uncover information about the movie. I also do all this research to make sure, if I do decide to review the movie in question, that my words don't closely echo another reviewer. It's not easy. For example, take the case of a movie that I reviewed last year. I read one particular writer's review before watching the movie for myself. The problem was that when I finished watching the movie, I found myself agreeing with the writer's viewpoint of the movie in several key areas. I did my best to write a review that didn't copy the earlier review I read, but upon completing the review I found myself going back again and again to rewrite what I wrote to make sure no one would accuse me of plagiarism. You might be wondering why I went to all of that bother. Well, it's because I didn't want to risk receiving great wrath from the person who wrote the earlier review. And I know all too well what someone who finds out they have been plagiarized can feel like, because my writings on this web site have been plagiarized. Several years ago, an alert reader informed me that one of the hosts of a Canadian B-movie cable channel had taken a passage from one of my reviews and had read it word for word for a B movie he was introducing - and didn't mention that the words were mine and not his. Naturally, I was furious when I found out about this. I did some quick research on the Internet and found out the host's e-mail address, as well as the e-mail addresses of various other staff members of the B-movie channel, and I sent all of these people a report about what had happened and asked what were they going to do about it.

A few days later, I got an e-mail from the host who had plagiarized my writings. He claimed that he had done Internet research on the movie, come across my web site during his research, and while collecting all his information neglected to note that those words he ended up using were from my web site and not his. He said he was "horrified" by his "accidental" plagiarism, and begged for my forgiveness. Was I convinced by his explanation? No. But at the time I didn't have the stomach, finances, or time to file a lawsuit. So I accepted his apology and moved on, though I got some satisfaction later when the B-movie channel shut down. Anyway, that's not the only time my writings from this web site have been plagiarized, though I won't go into detail about the other times. What I want to do is talk more about the idea of plagiarism and popular media. Of course, one of the most popular ideas of this is with motion pictures. As you no doubt know, there are plenty of B movie studios, like The Asylum, who have stolen their ideas from big budget A studio movies, making just enough changes that it would be hard for the A studios to win a lawsuit. But there are also claims that A studios have been guilty of plagiarism as well, though not from copying other studios. There have been plenty of claims that A studios have stolen ideas from young and naive screenwriters over the years. For example, when Jerry Lewis was filming his comic masterpiece The Nutty Professor, he was slapped with a lawsuit from a newbie screenwriter who claimed in her lawsuit that years earlier she had discussed a similar idea with Lewis. Though one historian uncovered the fact that Lewis had been thinking about doing his movie three years before meeting the screenwriter, the court still found Lewis had some responsibility because he had talked to the woman. Lewis was naturally outraged by all this, but faced with a long and lengthy lawsuit, he settled out of court.

When I hear about claims of plagiarism, my heart usually goes out to the people who are making the claims. It's not just because I have been the victim on several occasions. Sometimes it's that the people making the claims are usually what you would consider to be "the little guys". Outlaw BluesIt's easy to picture some big person or company stealing some struggling person's work, and managing to get away with it. Though in this day of mass media, it does seem less likely that some big person or company could get away with stealing someone's work. Maybe a movie like Outlaw Blues, which deals with someone's work being stolen and passed of as the work of someone else, might seem odd to a more modern audience. But I still remember the 1970s quite well, so when I sat down to watch the movie, I was able to put myself in a frame of mind where many things were much simpler than they are now. Here's the movie's plot: When the movie starts, a man by the name of Bobby Ogden (Fonda, Race With The Devil) is serving time in a Texas prison. One day, a hot country western singer by the name of Garland Dupree (James T. Callahan, Inchon) visits the prison to hold a concert. Bobby is an aspiring singer and songwriter, and he gets the chance to show Garland his songs. After leaving the prison, Garland decides to steal one of Bobby's songs - a number called Outlaw Blues - and record and pass it off as one of his own. Bobby eventually finds out about this, and is livid. After being released from prison, he decides to directly confront Garland. When the two meet again, there is a struggle, and Garland is accidentally wounded. In short notice, Bobby finds himself on the run from the law once again. But this time he has someone on his side - during his run, he gains a manager, a woman by the name of Tina (James, Don't Cry It's Only Thunder), who takes it upon herself to promote Bobby's version of Outlaw Blues all the way to the top of the charts.

From that plot description, you've probably concluded that Outlaw Blues' story clearly has a couple of attributes that if correctly exploited would make the movie greatly appeal to American drive-in audiences, especially those from the southern part of the country. The part of the story with Bobby on the run is a great excuse for action sequences, and with the movie involving the music industry, there is a good excuse for the movie to play a lot of music - specifically country music. One other attribute the story has is that it's sometimes played for laughs - and what good ol' boy doesn't like some (well done) humor? The first thing I'll do is critique the action attribute of the movie, what I was most wanting the movie to deliver. Overall, the action is okay -it could have been worse, but could have better. The movie starts off well, with a short but realistic and exciting fight sequence Bobby has with Garland in the recording studio, shortly after followed by an impressive stunt involving a three story fall onto a non padded surface. Towards the end of the movie, there are some fairly well done chase sequences, including a speedboat pursuit that will make you bite a few nails. Apart from those aforementioned action sequences, though, the movie seems a little undercooked in the action department. For one thing, the long middle stretch of the movie doesn't contain that much action at all. And the action in that middle stretch that does come feels very routine and familiar. All I have to do to explain that is to mention that banjo music is played during high speed pursuits. Yes, you've guessed it - these particular chases are done in a fairly slapstick nature, with the chase participants driving through wedding receptions and the police pursuers wiping out in a comic fashion. Yawn.

I do realize that for many drive-in attendees at the time Outlaw Blues was released, slapstick chases would have fit the bill. I'm just not one of those kind of people. Fortunately, when it comes to other attempts at humor, the movie is more successful. The movie wisely plays most of the movie seriously, but does occasionally add a little welcome silliness as real life often does. One amusing scene involves the on the run Bobby sneaking into a music store to check the status of his song, with customers recognizing him and asking for his autograph. It's funny because it's played in a low key and realistic manner; I could see this happening in real life. However, there is also some unintentional amusement in the movie, namely when Peter Fonda starts to sing. The songs aren't written badly - the end credits reveal talent like Hoyt Axton and John Oates wrote the songs. It's just that Fonda's singing voice quite frankly sounds monotone and bland. To Fonda's credit, he seems to have realized that, and sings the songs in a soft and low key manner, which makes them somewhat bearable to the ears. When Fonda puts down his guitar and does some acting, he continues his low key approach to the audience. That might sound like he's not trying very hard, but it turns out to be the right approach for this particular movie. Protesting hard and being constantly aggressive towards his song being stolen and finding himself pursued by the police would probably have turned off the audience. So instead, he puts on a soft smile and for the most part engages in an easygoing manner to most people he comes across. While I don't think Fonda was ever considered a great actor, this particular performance alone shows he knew how to get the audience onto his side when playing a protagonist. And to me, that's good acting.

Fonda also manages to generate some genuine chemistry when he's paired up with his co-star Susan Saint James. James' character of Tina is one that has a surprising number of smarts, which might have come across as unbelievable with another actress, but James always finds the right note to make Tina convincing. Others in the cast that do well include Michael Lerner (Busting) as an effectively sleazy record executive, and John Crawford (Trouble Man) as an amusingly goofy police chief campaigning for mayor. As for James T. Callahan as plagiarizing country music star Garland Dupree, he is amusing at times, but other times he camps it up too much and ultimately becomes too silly a villain. This may have been because his role in the movie is much less than you might think, being offscreen for long periods and making just a few short appearances in total - Callahan might have thought from this he needed to punch up his performance to be memorable to the audience. Outlaw Blues' failure to not write a strong villain (as well as one who is not properly punished in the end) is not the only flaw to be found in the story department. Dupree's plagiarizing seems extremely foolish, because Bobby Ogden was clearly shown first performing the song to a number of witnesses, witnesses who could easily state that Ogden was the composer of the song. Also, right after Ogden first performs the song, the movie immediately cuts to Ogden hearing Dupree singing the song on the radio, which is quite abrupt. Actually, the biggest flaw in the script is that the story is more often dragged out a little too long for its own good. While the path to stardom in real life is indeed often a slow and laborious process, the movie shows us too many scenes of Tina and Ogden on that strenuous path. As a result, for the longest time the story seems to be at a standstill. Things do eventually pick up, and in the end the movie does manage to make for an okay moviegoing experience. But when you consider those aforementioned excuses the movie had for action, comedy, and music, I couldn't help but also see a lot of wasted potential. While I normally dislike even the idea of remakes, I think that Outlaw Blues is one movie that under the right hands could be remade into a B movie classic.

(Posted February 14, 2020)

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See also: Baker County U.S.A., Preacherman, Race With The Devil