The Left-Handed Gun (Arthur Penn / U.S., 1958):

The formation of Arthur Penn's cinema in tandem with the formation of the psyche of Billy the Kid (Paul Newman), whoís advised to "put away childish things." The wanderer enters the screen lugging a saddle like Randolph Scott in a Boetticher adventure, though Billyís silence is not laconicism but the blockiness of the Penn outsider, fumbling for identity. The herdsman who helps him (Colin Keith-Johnston), the first of the directorís elusive father-figures, speaks of life "through a glass darkly" and is promptly killed, leaving the image to reverberate in the protagonistís skull -- John Dehner as Pat Garrett is introduced with his nose pressed to the saloon door, bathwater makes a foggy canvas out of a windowpane, Billy sketches a revenge plan on it and Pennís slow dissolve takes you to the action. In a story of births, there must be deaths and rebirths as well: After escaping incineration, the outlaw is given a mock-elegy by his cohorts underneath a bed sheet and, finally, resuscitation by burning his own death notice. ("I ainít dead no more. Iíve come awake," he declares with full Actors Studio theatricality.) Newmanís feverish pas-de-deux with broom and "Rally Ďround the Flag," the flour-covered getaway, the shooting of the moon's reflection -- this is the freedom Renoir said directors have in the Western. The killing of Denver Pyle is a small masterpiece of its own, the visceral execution of violence (slow-mo under harsh sunlight) and its moral critique (the one boot left standing is giggled at by a little girl, who receives her motherís disapproving slap). Pennís goal is not so much revionism as modernism, the tearing down of one legend to erect another: Hurd Hatfieldís betrayal when Billy the Kid wonít live up to his legend is the hurt of the myth-peddler and proto-groupie, a concept with echoes in Unforgiven and In Praise of Love. A close, inspired study of Ford and Nicholas Ray, and a decisive source of inspiration to Peckinpah, Malick and Penn himself, who looked at it again and saw Bonnie and Clyde. With Lita Milan, James Congdon, James Best, John Dierkes, and Wally Brown. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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