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A good but disturbing psychological western, well directed by Penn and acted in a strangely fascinating style by Newman. Penn demythologizes Billy the Kid, and Newman plays him more honestly than anyone else ever has. He was a slow-witted illiterate with a streak of sadistic bloodlust in
him, fiercely loyal to his few friends and deadly to all who became his enemy. Newman is nothing but a western guttersnipe until John Tunstall (Keith-Johnston), a kindly rancher whom Billy had known in real life, treats him with understanding. Newman reacts as would any loveless human, becoming
fanatically devoted to the rancher. When the unarmed Keith-Johnston is shot to death by a deputy and three others in a range war, Newman and his equally empty-headed saddlemates, Best and Congdon, track down the killers and murder them one by one. Pat Garrett (Dehner), the famous lawman who was
the harsh, real-life father figure for Billy, vows revenge on the Kid after Newman kills one of the guests--the last of the foursome sought for Keith-Johnston's death--at Dehner's wedding party. Newman is arrested and jailed, but he escapes, murdering his guards in the process. The relentless
Dehner then tracks him down and kills the unarmed outlaw with a single shot. Flitting in and out of Newman's life is a neurotic pulp writer, Hatfield, who creates the myth of Billy the Kid and then condemns the outlaw for not living up to his lies. This first film by director Penn stems from Gore
Vidal's wacky, self-serving teleplay, "The Death of Billy the Kid," which was helmed by Penn for TV in 1955. Penn toned down Vidal's portrait of the Kid as a rampant homosexual which reflected the author's interests perhaps more than the facts of history. Newman, as he had in SOMEBODY UP THERE
LIKES ME, took a role here which was originally coveted by James Dean, who died prematurely in a car accident, but he does a masterful job in portraying the ruthless killer whose reputation existed only beyond the grave.