The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which two blogger friends (that’s me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.

The Left Handed Gun (1958) stars Paul Newman as an angsty, tortured, emo, immature Billy the Kid. The opening shows him wandering, stumbling across the land, almost out of his mind from exhaustion and thirst. To the group of men he meets, he’s a mystery; one says he remembers hearing Billy killed someone when he was 11. The man in charge is an English rancher (Colin Keith-Johnston) who offers Newman a job. Newman’s Billy is a shy, quiet type on the surface, and clearly an independent and troubled young man. He responds well to understanding and kindness, as we see when he shows curiosity about the book his boss is reading. When the man explains the metaphors and then gives him the volume to keep, Billy is deeply touched and instantly attached to the man.

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Sadly, Newman’s new father figure is not long for this world, because he soon rides straight into an ambush set by his competitors in a cattle price war. The Englishman is anti-gun and refuses Newman’s offer of protection, so the murder leaves Newman feeling hurt, lost and partially responsible. He talks his coworkers and new friends, played by James Best and James Congdon, into joining him on a mission of revenge, and the trio spend most of the film working their way through the four men on Billy the Kid’s hit list, all while trying to stay ahead of the law, and also trying to stay together as close calls, new fears and changing priorities pull the friendship apart.

Hurd Hatfield plays a fan and dedicated follower of Billy the Kid’s, who helps build the outlaw’s reputation by selling tales of his exploits to the newspapers. By the time the law has caught up to Billy and he waits in shackles for his hanging, his name and legend have grown to epic proportions; though he can barely read, he recognizes enough words to see that he’s called a “figure of glory.” John Dehner plays Pat Garrett, first a friend and protector (and another father figure) to Billy, but once the youth breaks his promise to stop the violence and spoils Dehner’s wedding day with his lust for revenge, Garrett accepts the offer to be Sheriff and dedicates himself to putting Billy away.

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Neither the overly emotive style of acting nor the tortured youth approach to character that were common in this era, and that you find plenty of here, are to my taste. Luckily Newman has enough magnetism and appeal, and this is movie is made well enough, that it amounts to more than just a series of stupid frat boy antics in cowboy costumes. Newman does well with the tough acting demands he has here, playing intellectually backward and uneducated but very clever and street smart. He doesn’t like to talk about himself or his painful past and is shy and bashful around girls, but he’s quick with an insult or comeback, is pleased to know he’s a celebrity, and sure enjoys hearing how feared and admired he is. Not knowing how to read is a major embarrassment to him, and it’s fascinating to watch Newman’s acting when he clearly can’t understand the text before him, and is figuring out how to look smooth and make comments he hopes will get others to explain what the words mean. I think the acting gets a bit much, even feels forced in some scenes, where he plays out mindless dancing and wild-eyed fury to show he’s unstable, or dramatic cringing, hair-pulling and face-scrunching to show pain and mourning.

This unstable and dangerous loose cannon could easily have turned into a teen movie cliche but there are some very good scenes to make up for ones I found hollow. Two things happen to fuel Billy’s ego and anger: first he’s assumed (and worse to him, reported) dead in a fire and he sees that as a conspiracy to keep him down. Second, amnesty is declared, which absolves Billy and company from punishment for their crimes, but he sees it as being cheated out of complete vengeance since he has one more man to kill. He adds a lot of depth to the character from that point on, when he defies Dehner’s pleas, taunts and tricks a lawman, and as grows increasingly egotistical, desperate, and then a cornered animal resigned to his fate.

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Billy starts out with potential to be good, and through the story he sees himself as the hero, the law, and his mission as just. He sees two caring father figures killed (John Dierkes is the second, a man who prays with him and warns that vengeance is “against God”) and one more turn against him. He watches his buddies get gunned down and is terrified of death but likes the idea of flaming out in glory. He gets plenty of chances to go straight, but he’s stuck with the impulses of a rebellious, tortured teen, one ill-equipped to handle tough life decisions and the consequences of real world death and violence, and one who has no judgment but a “quick jump” on the trigger.

The Left Handed Gun was directed by Arthur Penn and the source was a play by Gore Vidal adapted for the screen by Leslie Stevens, so in all this psychological and physical conflict there are themes and visuals to keep you interested. I like the transition from Newman sketching out his plan on a steamy window, to looking through the window at the actual shooting playing out on the street. There’s a modern looking slow motion gundown, complete with the nice touch of having a kid laugh at the boot that gets knocked off the victim. Interesting movie overall, with several good performances (I especially liked Hatfield), and signs of themes and styles that would mark Penn’s later movies and the direction of cinema in general.

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Now go see the movie I picked for Mike, a couple of my favourite actors in a comedy about the afterlife and second chances.

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10 thoughts on “The Left Handed Gun (1958)”

  1. Newman has always been a favorite of mine and his fifties output are interesting in seeing an actor grow. Many of his films have a few missteps but come the sixties he’s as solid as any other star of the screen and remained so for years. I also like John Dehner though he’s usually a one dimensional heavy. Nicely done though it was be default and a last minute sub. 🙂

    1. He was totally fascinating to watch in this, not only because he was so handsome, but despite what I find some overacting in places, he had a tough job hitting the balance of the young, dumb but smart outlaw. Just watching him work things out was fun, I can see why he was pushing to have this movie made because it was such a juicy role for him. Dehner was a familiar face and here he had a meatier role so that was nice to see. Hurd Hatfield was great, totally different from Dorian Gray which I bet is the only thing most people know him for. Glad I saw it.

  2. Now this is a movie I don’t particularly like, and that’s mostly down to Newman’s performance. Some of those early roles were among the worst examples of the Method running riot. Also, I’m not convinced Penn had much affinity with the western and I think that comes through in the picture. Dehner’s work here represents the brightest spot for me.

    1. I learned from a very good and wise blogger 🙂 to focus on the positive, and a few things I found to like here, it was interesting to see him try to work it all out, plus it fills a gap in my viewing. But generally yes, extreme Method acting and emo misunderstood youth, especially when applied to westerns, don’t do anything for me either. I much preferred Wagner as Jesse, for one kind of similar example, that was less cartoonish, which this often fell into, like the scene where he loses himself in the music or when the buddies end up covered in flour after a brawl, stuff like that just feels forced. Dehner was such a staple on TV and I like to see him get a juicy role like this. Cheers

      1. I thought you did a good job of putting as positive a spin on the movie as possible, and there are some good aspects there.
        I remember writing a but the film some years ago, when I was doing a short Billy the Kid series, and I don’t think I’ve watched it since. I was going through stuff chronologically and had just viewed The Outlaw perhaps a week before – I was pretty much fed up at that point.

  3. Like Colin, I’ve never much liked it–and I’ve tried. I have some of the same complaints, finding Newman mannered and Penn ill-suited to Westerns (his other two are worse than this one) even though he was drawn to the genre, it seems. THE LEFT-HANDED GUN does feel modern–about ten years ahead of its time perhaps–but that’s not a compliment in 1958 which was peak year for Westerns and so many outstanding ones that did could be serious but unlike this one never felt pretentious. Just for one, John Dehner has a far more memorable role in MAN OF THE WEST, a very powerful Western.

    I’m just throwing in my two cents because somehow the reputation of this film has remained high. That’s why I’ve worked on and have come to appreciate there are maybe fifteen effectively intense minutes in the later reels but that’s about the best I can say for it.

    But to end on a positive note, I think Newman became a much better actor over time, really superb in the late NOBODY’S FOOL for one, and though Penn’s career is checkered for me, he did direct (and very beautifully) one of my favorite 70s movies, NIGHT MOVES, one of the greatest of all detective movies.

    1. Yes I agree, MAN OF THE WEST I saw so long ago I need to go back to it, but recall liking it. Another thing here that I found very modern, actually by now is a big cliche, is the Christ pose Newman strikes when he’s shot, I don’t know if that shows up in another movie before this, it may have, but stuff like that makes me roll my eyes. So no, I admit this whole style is not my cup of tea but again it was worth the view to see something from that place in Penn’s and Newman’s career, and it was fascinating to watch him figure things out re the character in the better moments. I totally agree on NOBODY’S FOOL, that is a super movie. Never got around to NIGHT MOVES, so I’ll have to, soon. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Sorry for a too fast typing “1958 was a peak year for Westerns and so many outstanding ones that could be serious…” is how that should have read.

    I thought you were pretty even-handed (rather than left-handed) about this. I too roll my eyes at Christ poses and things like that.

    Love to read your take on NIGHT MOVES when you get to it. I believe it’s by far the best movie of Penn, with great script by Alan Sharp and Gene Hackman, one of the few leading men among American actors who I really love in the 1970s.

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