The Left Handed Gun

The iconographic photo of Billy the Kid, his body at a slight rake, a holster and pistol cut on his hip, shows him left-handed. Reverse that image as recent scholarship demands and, faster than you can slap leather, William Bonney is right-handed. This simple exercise shows the plasticity of myth. At first glance, Arthur Penn's debut feature is about that very thing, the juvenile outlaw made notorious by the mythopoetic press. But Penn sets his bead on something gamier, the feral underpinnings of the great western expansion. Billy, played with simmering swagger by Paul Newman, is an ill-bred roustabout, roaming the range of New Mexico. Taken in as an uncouth stray by “The Englishman,” a patriarchal rancher caught up in the Lincoln County War, his lethal behavior is temporarily corralled. But upon the rancher's murder, Billy's untamed nature returns like a stampede of wild horses. Newman's portrayal is all lanky gesture and hardscrabble speechlessness. “I got myself all killed,” he mutters, acknowledging his unruly reckoning. Penn's free-ranging Western is all about cowboys and Freudians.

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