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. —Steve Seid
Once the vanguard of 1960s-1970s Hollywood New Wave, director Arthur Penn saw his cinematic fortunes decline with the mid-‘70s rise of more straightforward blockbuster entertainment. Even as he struggled through the ’80s and ’90s, however, Penn’s legacy was assured by such films as Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975), and the pivotal masterwork Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Born in Philadelphia, Penn was trained to follow in his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker, but by high school, he knew he preferred theater. While stationed at Fort Jackson, SC, during World War II, Penn formed a small drama circle with his fellow infantrymen, and continued his education as an actor at school in North Carolina and Italy after the war. Though Penn acted in Joshua Logan’s theater company and studied with Michael Chekhov at the Actors Studio’s Los Angeles branch, he opted for a career behind the scenes when he got a job at NBC TV in 1951. By 1953, Penn was writing and… read more
Absolutely no evidence on display here that both Arthur Penn and Paul Newman would go on to bigger things. Newman severely miscast here as Billy the Kid not helped by a weak script. The look of the film is very generic for the time period and therefore little to recommend the pic by today's standards.
Because Paul Newman is the most beautiful man in all of cinema, his jaw/cheekbone combination is divine as Mozart's Requiem and his blue eyes glow like diamonds even in black and white, and oh my god those lips! I'm straight, but my God! Damn fine actor as well.