Directed by Arthur Penn. USA. 1958.

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There have been forty-six feature films made about the life of Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonner, alias Billy the Kid. All movies mix fact and fiction to a greater or lesser degree but one of the few sympathetic portraits of the young outlaw is Arthur Penn's 1958 film The Left-Handed Gun starring Paul Newman. Newman's Billy is a confused, emotionally unstable personality rather than a cold-blooded killer, and Penn would have us believe that Billy killed because he was forced to defend himself and his honour, not just for the thrill of it. Based on the teleplay, The Death of Billy the Kid by Gore Vidal, The Left-Handed Gun is a very entertaining film but feels more like a star vehicle for Newman than a film that strives to be challenging or complex. Newman captures Billy's humour and sense of fun but is too old (33) for the role and his cynical swagger seems inappropriate for the slow-witted teenager.

Billy the Kid grew up among settlers of the new towns in the American Southwest made up of cattle thieves, gamblers, and murderers. He was an illiterate drifter until John Tunstall (Keith Johnston), a friendly English rancher, took him under his wing and became a father figure. In the film, Billy becomes devoted to Tunstall (in reality Tunstall was only 24) and when the rancher is killed by a deputy and three others sent to take Tunstall's cattle and property because of his partnership with McSween in the mercantile business in Lincoln, Billy vows revenge. Together with his buddies, Tom Folliard (James Best) and Charlie Boudre (James Congdon), they track down the killers one by one until Billy is arrested and jailed by lawman Pat Garrett (John Dehner) after the last of the foursome is murdered on Garrett's wedding night. When Billy escapes from jail, killing his guards in the process, Garrett tracks him to the Chihuahuan Desert where the story of Billy the Kid's life ends and the myth begins. 

Howard Schumann
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