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William Bonney - Billy the Kid - gets a job with a cattleman known as 'The Englishman,' and is befriended by the peaceful, religious man. But when a crooked sheriff and his men murder the Englishman because he plans to supply the local Army fort with his beef, Billy decides to avenge the death by killing the four men responsible, throwing the lives of everyone around him - Tom and Charlie, two hands he worked with; Pat Garrett, who is about to be married; and the kindly Mexican couple who take him in when he's in trouble - into turmoil, and endangering the General Amnesty set up by Governor Wallace to bring peace to the New Mexico Territory. Written by
Gary Dickerson <email@example.com>
Billy The Kid has been played on screen by many actors, of whom Paul Newman may have been the most justly famous. So why is his Billy such a drip?
Newman was 33 years old and had managed to make the most of his second chance at screen fame with a solid turn in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," playing a rebellious young boxer. As Billy, though, Newman seems lost as a similar character of sudden impulse. "All I know is how I feel," he says, and that's true whether he's brooding Brando-like over the death of a rancher he just met or dancing up a storm three minutes later. For every scene he plays with his trademark cool, there must be four or five he exaggerates to strange effect.
It's a strange movie with or without him. Celebrated by some as a psychological western, it presents Billy as neither evil nor a sociopath, but rather as tied up by an understandable if extreme need for revenge. There was this guy, you see, who gave Billy a job and then got shot by some corrupt peace officers, and he promised to teach poor Billy to read.
Never mind that Billy doesn't know this guy when the movie starts and he's already dead ten minutes in. Nor that Billy's two partners-in-crime, Tom (James Best) and Charley (James Congdon), have no clear reason for siding with their hot-tempered friend. "The Left-Handed Gun" is a film in a hurry, mainly to give Newman as much opportunity to emote as possible. Boy, does Newman emote!
Compositionally, "The Left-Handed Gun" does some interesting things. We see Billy's first gunfight through a steamed-up window taking place while Billy simultaneously maps it out, a terrific effect. Director Arthur Penn and cinematographer J. Peverell Marley (not a harmonious team, as Penn reveals in a DVD commentary) continually find unique details to capture the eye, like one man's face pressed against a window glass after taking a fatal bullet. In his movie blog "Nothing Is Written," Groggy Dundee points out just how much of Penn's big escape scene made it into the later Sam Peckinpah movie "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid," to the point of identical blocking and camera angles.
This is a better film that that one, which is overlong and cattywampus. Penn makes a point in his DVD commentary about the film being taken away from him in the editing room, and there's much sloppiness in evidence in the final cut, like Tom taking the same bullet in two consecutive scenes. But Penn must take the blame for a cast that overplays way too much, as if Newman's Method acting style was the swine flu. Best either whacks his hat or giggles constantly, while John Dehner as Pat Garrett has an atrocious scene where he whines at Billy for shooting a guy during his wedding reception.
"This wall, this street, this town, I married all of it," Dehner screams. I shudder to imagine the honeymoon.
Best's future "Dukes Of Hazzard" castmate Denver Pyle sticks out in a better way as the ornery Ollinger, while Hurd Hatfield coos over Billy as an overly florid Southern writer who wants to make his fortune writing up Billy's career. Considering this was based on a play by Gore Vidal, there may be a subtext there, though Hatfield works his few scenes more in the direction of a creepier Vincent Price. I liked him, even if I don't think he got across anything more than a hint of an idea about our exploitative celebrity culture.
That's the problem with "Left-Handed Gun," aiming too high and not getting what it shoots for. That and Newman, who shows some star power here but not much acting skill. Unlike Billy, he had time to get better.
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