After the death of husband Sam Starr sharp-shooting lady outlaw Belle Starr (Jane Russell) escapes a hanging aided by fellow fugitive Bob Dalton (Scott Brady). She finds refuge with his brothers, the notorious Dalton Gang, even as her blouse-busting pulchritude arouses their lascivious ally, Mac (Forrest Tucker). Bob has his sights set on making Belle his own but she mistakenly thinks he sold her out when local lawmen invade the hideout. In revenge Belle allies herself with Mac and Indian outlaw Ringo (Jack Lambert) to pull off a heist before the Daltons can rob the same bank. So Bob ends up believing Belle double-crossed him first.
Ten years after Twentieth Century Fox made the heavily sentimentalized biopic Belle Starr with Gene Tierney, RKO studios mounted their own take on the infamous lady outlaw as a vehicle for reigning sex bomb Jane Russell. Neither screen goddess bore any resemblance to the real Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr – Pamela Reed got the closest in Walter Hill's late western The Long Riders (1980) – though Jane's brassier screen persona was perhaps more befitting of the role. Veteran action-adventure hand Allan Dwan, though he dabbled in other genres too, tailors a far livelier western around her earthier, unrepentant sensuality. Disappointingly though, those publicity stills featuring Jane in a tight brassiere with a six-gun and a smile do not feature in this movie. Montana Belle seemingly takes its cue from the icon's notorious screen debut, The Outlaw (1943). There Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday (western legends who never met in real life) clashed over their mutual desire for Jane. Here Belle Starr and Bob Dalton are the legends who never met but true to form, Jane's voluptuous presence inflames and enrages the male characters. Or as Native American caricature Ringo puts it: “Only trouble come with squaw.” That guy is one “ug” away from a defamation lawsuit.
Post-production tampering from habitual meddler and Jane's would-be svengali Howard Hughes (despite his pursuit, she denied they ever had an affair) means the film moves like a bullet albeit at the expense of plot coherence and consistency. Co-star Scott Brady essays a charmless, belligerent romantic lead and the film seems to agree as midway upright Bob undergoes a character change and becomes an abrasive jerk. A half hour in Montana Belle abruptly shifts gears to become a different movie. Glammed up in a blonde wig (blonde or brunette, Jane's fetching as ever), Belle poses as respectable society gal Lucy Winters, later nicknamed Montana to justify that title. It is part of her plan to evade the law but also entice wealthy saloon owner and gambler Tom Bradfield (George Brent) who is helping safeguard the bank from the Daltons. Savvy Tom recognizes Belle's eyes but unexpectedly proposes a business partnership. Thereafter, Belle finds herself charmed with Tom and conflicted over her actions. Bob resurfaces, still intent on wooing Belle back to the outlaw life in California and Mac... Well, Mac turns out to be a decent sort, way more honest and admirable than the viewer initially suspects. Remember what I said about consistency? This problem resurfaces not only with blubbery western staple Andy Devine serving as both backstabbing traitor and lovable comedy relief but also Belle herself who complains about persecution but remains a fairly unrepentant outlaw.
George Brent is far too old for his role but shares an amiable, easygoing chemistry with Jane Russell that leaves the relationship more believable. Needless to say the film plays fast and loose with historical fact. It tries to refashion the story as a moral dilemma with Belle torn between two men offering two very different ways of life. Montana Belle plays to certain male preconceptions about women's needs but the offbeat trajectory of the plot proves interesting if not entirely successful.