William Bonney was better known as Billy the Kid, a gunslinger who reportedly killed 21 people in his short 21-year life. This controversial figure has become a favorite in the western genre, his quick, violent life being translated to the screen countless times. The problem? None of them are very good, all of them extremely flawed, especially 1958's The Left Handed Gun.
A drifter and gunslinger without much to his name, William Bonney (Paul Newman) is hired by rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) to work as a cowhand. In the midst of a cattle range war, Tunstall is killed soon after by rival factions, leaving Bonney looking for vengeance. The four men responsible for the murder are basically let off without a slap on the wrist with young Billy deciding it's up to him to administer justice. With two other cowhands, he sets out to kill the men, one by one, gaining quite a reputation in the process. His name might be too big though with a new governor moving into the territory. Billy's friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has been hired as a marshal to bring him in, and a tortured Billy seems to be running out of time.
The history here is one of the most well-known and still disputed stories involving the wild west. The general facts are known, the names, places and times, but it seems everyone has an opinion about Billy the Kid, especially his death in 1881. There is a comfort level then with a movie like this with anyone even remotely familiar with the Lincoln County War. Anyone not familiar? Oh, boy, this could be interesting. Director Arthur Penn takes a revisionist look at the story. That isn't automatically a bad thing. Many revisionist westerns try to paint the west as it really was, not as it is remembered. Mostly because of Newman's performance the movie is at least watching, but at other times it is surreal in its execution...and not in a good way.
Depending on the account you read, Billy the Kid was an amiable young man who was personable, intelligent and that his outlaw exploits were greatly exaggerated. How then does 'Left Handed' portray him? An uncaged animal who has the maturity of a 13-year old boy, the emotions of a schizophrenic, and personal demons that threaten to cripple his every move. Newman does what he can with the part, making it interesting if not very good, overacting like a crazy man. But no matter what he does, the portrayal of Billy is just plain weird. With his friends Tom Folliard (James Best) and Charlie Boudre (James Congdon), Billy is a cackling, giggling pre-teen who can snap into psycho with the snap of a finger, ready to gun down anyone. His struggles with women leads to the possible rape of Lita Milan's Celsa, a pretty Mexican girl. His vengeance comes after knowing Tunstall for a day (as the movie says, not real life), Billy clearly looking for some sort of father figure. He wastes away as the bodies mount, an anti-hero to conquer all anti-heroes. Worst though, I'm not sure what Penn is going for or what he's trying to say.
The part of Billy was originally given to James Dean, but the young actor was killed before production started and in stepped Paul Newman. The original casting is perfect because Billy here is basically Rebel Without a Cause with a six-shooter. I give Newman credit for committing to this part. He is eternally watchable no matter the part, and that is on display here. In the hands of a lesser actor, this part would have been a trainwreck, the overemotional, high strung gunslinger basically being asked to be gunned down. To a point, Newman keeps it grounded as much as he can, but the movie on the whole does nothing to help him. In its attempts to make the events "real," the story ends up being so theatrically ridiculous, so BIG emotionally, that it all falls apart.
There just isn't much going for this movie. The score from Alexander Courage basically blares in your ear the whole time, telling you what to feel emotionally. Dehner as Pat Garrett has potential, including several good scenes with Billy, but his reason for hunting down the Kid is laughable, and the theatrics of his explosion are equally laughable. Yes, big, angry eyes and screaming. The black and white shooting offers a stark look at the story, a washed out feel to this dark story, but it seems just one town set was used repeatedly. Oh, and for trivia buffs out there, Billy the Kid wasn't a left handed gun. He was a righty. Read about it HERE. It might be more interesting than the overdone movie.
The Left Handed Gun <---trailer (1958): * 1/2 /****