A re-telling of the story of William H. Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) who becomes embittered and violent when his mentor, genteel rancher Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is gunned down by a sheriff’s posse (one being corrupt Sheriff Brady himself), working for an intimidating rancher named Morton. Billy makes it his mission to hunt down Tunstall’s killers and get revenge, aided by two of Tunstall’s men, Charlie Bowdre (James Congdon) and Tom O’Foliard (James Best). The latter two are somewhat in over their heads however, as Billy is much more violently motivated than they are, shocking even hero-worshipping writer Moultrie (Hurd Hatfield). Complications arise when Billy’s new ally Pat Garrett (John Dehner) tires of his friend’s gun-happy ways and (after Billy breaks an amnesty) finally decides to give in to the demand that he become sheriff, setting up a showdown between the two pals. John Dierkes plays Tunstall’s loyal business partner McSween.
Although 30+ year old Paul Newman is clearly too old to play a guy who died aged 21, he gives one of his more interesting early performances in this rather grim 1958 western from debut film director Arthur Penn (“Little Big Man”, “Bonnie and Clyde”). Scripted by Leslie Stevens (whose play The Lovers was turned into the 1965 film “The War Lord”) from a teleplay by an apparently disgruntled Gore Vidal (“Ben-Hur”, “I Accuse”), the only major issue with the film (aside from playing extremely fast and loose with known facts to say the least) is that it’s way too much story to be telling in one 99 minute film. “Young Guns” had to tell it in two 90 odd minute films. An hour into a 90ish minute film is simply too late for Pat Garrett to still not be appointed sheriff, as it leaves Penn and Stevens having to rush things in the final half-hour.
In the role of Garrett, it must be said that John Dehner is the screen’s best-ever, much as James Coburn (who played him in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) is one of my favourite actors of all-time. It’s not even close, with all due respect to Coburn, Patrick Wayne (“Young Guns”), and William L. Petersen (“Young Guns II”). I never quite got Petersen’s take on the character, as he came off as a smug prick who never seemed credible as a former ally to Billy. At least with Coburn in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” the rather antagonistic relationship between the two fit in with the tone of the entire film. As for pale-eyed Dehner, his Garrett is given stronger motivation for siding against Billy than was Petersen (who seemed to be portraying Garrett as vain without any context for it). In this outing, Garrett is a decent, peace-loving man who used to be a bit of a scallywag. He sympathises with Billy and agrees to hide him, but when Billy starts shooting it up at his wedding and breaks the amnesty, Garrett draws a line in the sand. That makes much more sense than Garrett simply being an ambitious and glory-seeking dickhead.
Also impressing is the always sturdy John Dierkes in a supporting turn as McSween, the lawyer character Terry O’Quinn brilliantly portrayed in “Young Guns”. Lantern-jawed character actor Dierkes is a tower of quiet strength and decency, as the Bonney ally, stealing his every scene. Roscoe P. Coltrane himself, James Best is an appropriately dumb hick Tom O’Foliard (there’s a bit of Roscoe in the performance), if a bit underused, as is his “Dukes of Hazzard” co-star Denver Pyle as one of Garrett’s posse. James Congdon doesn’t get a lot to do as Charlie Bowdre (later immortalised by the underrated Casey Siemaszko in “Young Guns”), but his final scene is actually quite harrowing. As for Mr. Newman, inappropriate in age or not (and let’s face it, Tunstall was meant to be in his mid-20s and every film gets that one way wrong!), he gives a suitably taciturn, revenge-minded characterisation of the famed youthful outlaw. I think Emilio Estevez better conveyed Billy’s somewhat psychotic, trigger-happy side, but Newman is fine in his own way, too, one of his better early performances before his career really took off.
The one weak link in the cast is clearly Hurd Hatfield, whose character Moultrie is perhaps meant to be a blind hero-worshipper who gradually sees the disturbed man he has turned into a myth. Unfortunately, the oily way Hatfield portrays the character is so incredibly bizarre and mannered, that he’s inappropriately creepy and seems somehow sinister. He strikes every wrong note and stands out like a sore thumb in an otherwise excellent cast. Definitely worth commending is the stark, stunningly beautiful B&W cinematography by Peverell Marley (“Night and Day”, “The Greatest Show on Earth”), a highlight of the film for sure. Deaths in this film really seem differently handled to any western prior, and it’s one of the film’s chief strengths. It’s a bit more shocking, uglier, and more pronounced than most westerns before it.
Even though this is in many ways a traditional B-western, there’s an extra kick in the guts that, combined with some very good performances, elevate the film into something of a minor classic. It’s chief flaw (aside from perhaps the title being based on a dispelled myth) is covering a lot of material later seen in the “Young Guns” films, but with only 99 minutes, it does so too quickly and in not quite enough detail. Still an interesting, brooding, and stark film well worth re-discovery.