The formation of Arthur Penn's cinema in tandem with that of Billy the Kid's psyche, a pensive and manic ballad. William Bonney (Paul Newman) enters out of the sagebrush desert as if newly born—he lugs a saddle like Randolph Scott though his silence is less laconicism than the blockiness of the Penn outsider, fumbling for identity. The cattleman who helps him (Colin Keith-Johnston) speaks of life "through a glass darkly" and is promptly killed, leaving the image to rattle inside the wanderer's skull. (Bathwater makes a foggy canvas out of a windowpane, Billy sketches his vengeful plan on it and a lap dissolve gives Main Street just before the shootout.) A tale of birth is also one of death and rebirth, the fugitive is given a mock-funeral by his cohorts and then resurrects himself by burning his death notice. "I ain't dead no more. I come awake!" The outlaw's "good mind" and the sheriff's "soft heart," for Pat Garrett (John Dehner) it's a matter of the word broken at a wedding. "Souvenirs of the West," they're all documented by the Southern myth-peddler (Hurd Hatfield) who can't help being disappointed (cp. Eastwood's Unforgiven). Newman's raucous pas de deux with a broom in the saloon parlor, the flour-caked scuffle, the shooting of the moon's reflection in the pond: This is the freedom Renoir once said directors have with the Western. The killing of the bailiff (Denver Pyle) is a small masterpiece of its own, the visceral execution of violence (slow-motion under harsh sunlight) plus its moral critique (a childish giggle receives a sharp, disapproving slap). A Blakean modernity in old Warner Bros. sets, the "figure of glory" who loses a father figure and cuckolds another and gets shot by a third one. The inspired revision of Ford and Ray is a decisive source of inspiration for Peckinpah, Malick and Penn himself, who took another look at the hideout papered with reward posters and saw Bonnie and Clyde. Cinematography by Peverell Marley. With Lita Milan, James Congdon, James Best, John Dierkes, Ainslie Pryor, and Martin Garralaga. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce