“The Left Handed Gun” has a distinct pride of place in Paul Newman lore.
He’d already risen to stardom, not nearly as quickly as Brando, but quick enough to earn the envy of his life-long rival, Steve McQueen.”Somebody Up There Likes Me” pretty much ended Newman’s days of bit parts on TV and supporting roles on film.
And here he was, the lead in a star-vehicle Western, the “pretty boy” of the moment, his increasingly famous bright blue eyes dulled down in black and white. But more than anything else, this film and Newman’s movies of this era cemented his reputation as a serious actor.
He’d played Billy the Kid on TV three years before he stepped in front of the camera for Arthur Penn, whom he’d once acted for on the anthology series “Playwrights ’56.” Now Penn was making his major motion picture directing debut, and Newman would perfect his take on The Kid.
It wasn’t until later researchers looked hard at the most famous photograph of William Bonney and realized it was an inverted negative that the fact that Billy was actually right-handed became established. So there’s no faulting Gore Vidal, who wrote the teleplay that Newman had starred in, and helped expand and flesh it out, with screenwriter Leslie Stevens, for the big screen.
What was novel about the TV treatment and this later film is how unsentimental it is about Bonney, romanticized for 75 years, largely thanks to his name and youth. Watching “Gun” again, I was reminded of the ad campaign for Sam Peckinpah’s even gloomier take on the character, played by Kris Kristofferson in 1973’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
“Billy the Kid was a Punk.”
Newman’s “kid” carries a grudge all the way to his grave in this film. Taken in by the rancher Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston), a kindly Scotsman who took pity, put trust in Billy and turned him into a reader, Billy makes it his short life’s work to avenge Tunstall’s murder by law enforcement put up to it by his rivals.
There’s nothing sentimental about this Old West. Billy goads men that were a part of the conspiracy into gunfights, and kills others who stand in his way with barely a hint of righteousness in his revenge.
The striking thing about the movie is catching Newman just before “star clout” kicked in. He may have gotten his former TV director on board, but he played up “the kid” nature of his character just by denying himself the vanity of a horse that wouldn’t make him look so short. Watch the first time he mounts up in the movie. It’s like a tween climbing a tree, scrambling to do it quickly just to minimize any chance of “You man enough for that there hoss?” derision from the other cowhands. Check out the much shorter horse he rides as “Butch Cassidy,” in comparison.
His performance is wound-tight yet subtle, boyishly antic and just mature enough to let us see the character’s realization that he’s done wrong or made a fatal mistake.
But what really stood out on this re-viewing was the superb support Newman got from future Western icon John Dehner, turned into a wholly-logical and perfectly understandable Pat Garrett, the old running mate turned lawman who hunts The Kid down. Vidal’s take on the character is sharp, and all the best Garretts are descendants of this one. Dehner plays Pat as patient-and-understanding, but accepting of the fact that The Kid has earned his fate and he’s the one to make him meet it.
Dehner played many a heavy in Westerns and authority figures in other films and on TV, and later earned his own measure of immortality with a hilarious send-up of his booming, owlish Western persona as a comic villain in James Garner’s “Support Your Local Gunfighter.”
Denver Pyle’s most famous big screen role was in Arthur Penn’s greatest film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” released nearly ten years later. As in that film, he’s a lawman here.
And James Best almost left his bit player/character actor career behind after his flinty, empathetic turn as Billy’s fellow cowhand, friend and conscience, Tom Folliard. Best was never able to establish himself as a “name” star or leading man. He’s most remembered for his role as the hapless sheriff on TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard” twenty years later. He retired to my corner of Florida, spending most of his last years as a Space Coast celebrity.
There’s nothing flashy save for the performances in Penn’s debut feature. If anything, the first act seems rushed, with character development and detail skipped over. Television directors had to work quickly and TV screenplays had to be brisk and truncated. It takes a while for a style and patience to settle in.
It may not stand out the way “The Left Handed Gun” did when it hit the screen in ’58, a bracing counterpoint to the tsunami of formulaic “Manifest Destiny/Code of the West” Westerns that came before it on the big screen, and the generic Western fare already flooding TV, which it would continue to do into the late ’60s. The action sequences are blunt instruments and the grace notes tend to overwhelm them.
But the performances still crackle with understated modernity, giving us a West of not just sagebrush, saddles and stereotypes, but of real people, ruthless and impulsive, cunning and careless, actors playing folks who never let on that they know how this many-times-told story is going to end.
Rating: approved, violence
Cast: Paul Newman, John Dehner, James Best, Lita Milan, Denver Pyle, Hurd Hatfield, Colin Keith-Johnston, Martin Garralaga, Wally Brown and Paul Smith
Credits: Directed by Arthur Penn, scripted by Leslie Stevens, based on a Gore Vidal TV script. A Warner Brothers release available on Amazon and most any streaming platform.
Running time: 1:42