Left-Handed Gun, The (1958)


"The Left-Handed Gun," based on Gore Vidal's teleplay, "The Death of Billy the Kid," represents Arthur Penn's impressive feature debut, signaling the emergence of a major filmmaker, who a decade later would make "Bonne and Clyde" one of the most important films in American film history.

At the time of its release, the film was deemed too psychological and disturbing, decidedly polarizing film critics, who simply didn't know (and didn't have the tools) to evaluate the picture. Common words used in reviews of 1958 are "experimental Western," Method Acting in the Old West," the "New Psychologistic Western," and so on. However, as is often he case of innovative films ahead of their time, it took a decade or so fore the film to receive serious critical response and to become more appreciated, to the point where it's now a cult film of sort, exhibiting Paul Newman at his very best¬óand brooding.

Star Newman, director Penn, and screenwriter Leslie Stevens consciously tried to blaze new trails, drawing upon inspiration provided by Gore Vidal in his original TV script. As Lawrence Quirk points out, "different” Westerns were not exactly in style in 1958. Unappreciated in its own time, except by a few discerning critics, "Left-Handed Gun" slowly received its due respect.

Penn and cameraman J. Peverell Marley tried to expand the film creatively with original shots and unorthodox nuances, and Newman's erotic and brooding performance signals such later films as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," in 1969).

Penn perceived Billy the Kid as a confused adolescent with good potential, gone wrong because of his self-destructive nature. As played by Newman, Billy is a rebel of sorts, reckless and impulsive, yet capable of generosity and loyalty. Newman's Billy symbolizes raw energy with no place to go, ideas and feelings that could not find legitimate outlet, thus propelling him into premature destruction demise.

Set in the 1880s, the film depicts Billy’s disparate, contradictory inner elements and diffuse, inarticulate emotions most effectively, standing for an awkward youth who had been deprived of formal education and familial love.

This comes to the fore, when he unexpectedly encounters kindness and fairness. When his benefactor, the rancher Turnstall (Colin Keith-Johnston), a philosophical type who goes unarmed, is murdered by a deputy sheriff and other men, Billy vows to avenge his death. He thereupon sets out to stalk all four, along with his buddies, Charlie Boudre (James Congdon) and Tom Folliard (James Best). Billy kills two of the men before being forced to escape to Mexico.

In foreign land, he becomes briefly involved with Celsa (Lita Milan), a gunsmith’s wife, but the illicit affair causes new problems—and further flights. While Boudre and Folliard kill the third murderer of Turnstall, Billy tracks down and kills the fourth during a wedding celebration. Captured, he escapes from jail. But later one, he's tracked down and slain by a posse led by lawman Pat Garrett.

While the film's overt plot is rather simple, the characterization is deep and complex, stressing Billy's adolescent outlook, rudimentary sentiment and instinctive, sort of animalistic spirits, all qualities that Newman excels in portraying in a performance that's equally physical and emotional.


Paul Newman

Lita Milan Hurd Hatfield James Congdon James Best Colin Keith-Johnston John Dierkes Bob Anderson Wally Brown Ainslie Pryor Martin Carralaga Denver Pyle Paul Smith Nestor Paiva Jo Summers Robert Foulk Anne Barton


A Warner Bros. release of a Fred Coe production.

 Directed by Arthur Penn.

Screenplay by Leslie Stevens, based on a teleplay, The Death of Billy the Kid, by Gore Vidal.

Camera, J. Peverell Marley.

Music by Alexander Courage. Ballet by Willia Goyen and Alexander Courage. Set decorations, William J. Kuehl. Costumes, Marjorie Best. Makeup, Gordon Bau. Assistant Director, Russ Saunders. Art Director, Art Loel. Film Editor, Felmar Blangsted. Sound: Earl Crain, Sr.

Running time: 105 minutes.