Rescued from a lynch mob by Bob Dalton (Scott Brady), infamous outlaw Belle Starr (Jane Russell) joins up with the Dalton gang at their hideout in the hills. Bob quickly sets his sights on Belle, but it will have to wait. His brothers, especially Emmett (Ray Teal), want nothing to do with her, especially as they're planning their next robbery. Belle is left behind with two other members of the gang and when a posse shows up soon after, they draw their own conclusions. The Daltons set them up to take a fall, but Belle and Co. escape, vowing to start their own gang and go up against the brothers. The two are on a collision course, and with the law after them, nothing will come easily.
A no frills western from RKO studios, this is one of many B-movies that the studio became famous for. It lacks the scale of much bigger, more epic movies of the time, and in general has that quasi-cheap feel to it. The outdoor scenes are clearly filmed inside on sound stages, and the indoor sets are stylish and clean within an inch of their lives. In other words, like no wild west that ever existed. Now whether it's because it is 59 years later or just the look of the film, even the colors are washed out where everything looks faded now. A big budget isn't a must for a successful movie though, and 'Montana' has enough going for it to recommend.
For starters, the stable of RKO character actors is turned out here. Russell rose to fame with the then-scandalous The Outlaw in 1943, but never became a huge star in the late 1940s or 1950s. She was relegated to quick, entertaining movies like this. Without the greatest range as an actress, Russell holds her own though as a tough female character until the story requires her not to be. More on that later. Brady and Teal are the more visible of the Daltons, including background parts for Rory Mallinson (Grat) and Holly Bane (Ben). Forrest Tucker and Jack Lambert are bright spots as Mac and Ringo, Belle's partners in crime. Even look for Andy Devine in a supporting part that doesn't have him as shrill as he usually was. I guess that's a positive.
The story for this 82-minute western is more than a little schizophrenic with far too much going on in such a short movie. At different points, Russell is in love with or at least being pursued by Brady's Bob, Tucker's Mac, and George Brent as Tom Bradfield, the owner of a gambling house Belle intends to knock over. The story takes quick and surprising detours, bouncing back and forth between a more typical western story with its shootouts and betrayals with a less successful love story(ies). The pacing isn't a huge problem, but basically any scene with Russell's Belle and Brent's Tom lag a bit. Quite a singer when she wasn't acting, Russell also gets to sing two songs, including the Gilded Lily and The Man in the Moon. She's a good singer and seeing her dressed up as a saloon girl is never a bad thing, but both numbers bring the already drifting story to a screeching halt.
But just when it looks like things are going nowhere fast, 'Montana' redeems itself in the end. Belle's gang and the Daltons end up putting their differences aside and work together to rob a bank holding $1 million bucks waiting to be issued to cattle sellers. As harmless and even generic as the story has been up to this point, things change in a big way. Somewhat similar to the Dalton's Coffeyville raid, the robbery doesn't go off anywhere near as planned. There is a realism and darkness to this ending that the rest of the movie was lacking. A more pointed story in this vein certainly would have boosted the rating a bit. It also has one of the all-time great western lines ever, Bob Dalton telling Mac, "Let's walk out of this town." I don't want to give it away so see it in context!
Not a particularly memorable western, but fans of the genre should find enough to enjoy it. Make sure to stay through the end too, or at least the shootout in town. A last scene between Belle and Tom is sappy beyond belief, but the failed robbery makes some of the slower moments throughout worth the wait.
Montana Belle <---TCM trailer (1952): ** 1/2 /****