The Left Handed Gun

Posted on February 15th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Paul Newman by Colin

Poster

Now we come to The Left Handed Gun (1958) - a far superior movie to The Outlaw yet it’s not without its faults. This film sticks closer to the known facts about the Kid but it also portrays him as one of those mixed-up youngsters that became fashionable during the 50s. Whatever one’s feelings are on that particular slant, the performance given by Paul Newman in the lead role is problematic to say the least. I’ll talk about that more later but I honestly feel it constitutes the weakest part of the whole picture.

The first view of Billy (Paul Newman) shows an exhausted figure on the point of collapse stumbling across a western landscape. His meandering path leads him to a group of horsemen tending herd. These men are in the employ of Tunstall, and the old man obviously feels some kind of pity for the barely articulate figure he’s chanced upon as he gives him a job there and then. There are some mutterings from Tunstall’s more experienced men who’ve heard of the Kid’s murky past, but the boss keeps faith in his new man and even makes a start on teaching the illiterate youngster to read. The point here is to show the ever strengthening bond between the Kid and Tunstall, but this section of the movie moves so fast that by the time the latter is gunned down it’s hard to believe that any real or lasting affection could have had time to develop. As such, it’s a little difficult to swallow the idea of the Kid being so consumed with grief for his new mentor that he will set out on a murderous quest for vengeance. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what happens as the Kid, along with two equally unsophisticated cowboys (James Best and James Congdon), resolves to track down and kill the men responsible for Tunstall’s death. As he begins this task, the Kid has a fateful meeting with a man whose path he will cross many times, Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At the same time, we also get our first glimpse of another recurring character in the drama - Moultrie (Hurd Hatfield), a kind of wandering fool who seems to turn up wherever the Kid goes and who’s destined to play a significant role in sealing his eventual fate. While he and his two sidekicks are living as fugitives in Mexico, the Kid discovers that the new governor, Lew Wallace, has declared an amnesty for those involved in the Lincoln County War. Initially, it looks like there may be some kind of future that doesn’t involve killing and running, but the Kid’s impulsive and obsessive nature draws him back to the old blood feud, and a date with a friend that can only be postponed but never avoided.  

Paul Newman as the Kid.

Ok, let me start by getting something off my chest - I’ve never been a fan of method acting. There. I’ve always felt that the method has been responsible for some incredibly phony performances from otherwise talented actors. Of all the movies I’ve seen Paul Newman in (and there have been a few stinkers along the way) I’d rank his Billy the Kid as maybe his worst turn. I don’t believe I’ve seen another role where his performance was so affected and unnatural. I quite understand that he was trying to convey the fact that the Kid was essentially an ignorant and directionless young man who got dragged into events that were beyond his control and maybe even beyond his full comprehension. However, the constant “look at me, I’m acting” moments really become irritating the longer the film goes on. John Dehner helps overcome this shortcoming though as he gives a quieter and more thoughtful performance as Billy’s nemesis. I’m not sure there are any real heroes in ths story, but Dehner’s Garrett comes closest and he’s certainly easier to sympathise with than anyone else. As for the supporting players, James Congdon and James Best are good enough as the Kid’s loud and slightly dumb pals - Congdon’s maybe the less likeable one but he does get a memorable death scene. Hurd Hatfield’s Moultrie is a puzzling piece of work; he’s not really a character at all  (unless you view him as a Judas figure) but a kind of allegory for a press and public grown disenchanted by the unreality of the myth they have created themselves. A word now about director Arthur Penn. In truth, he wasn’t one of my personal favourites as a western filmmaker and he only made a handful of films within the genre anyway. Of those, I’d say The Left Handed Gun was the best of them. I couldn’t fault his work on this movie and the Mexican scenes in particular have a real lyrical quality that’s very attractive. My only complaint would be that he didn’t do more to rein in Newman’s excesses - had he done so the film would work better as a whole.

The DVD of The Left Handed Gun issued in the US by Warners, as part of their Paul Newman set, shows off the movie very nicely. The anamorphic transfer is mostly crisp and clean and contrast levels looked good to me. The disc also contains a commentary by director Arthur Penn and the trailer. All in all, a very satisfactory package. For the film itself, I have mixed feelings; there are moments of real quality and intensity but I have a problem getting past that overdone performance by Newman. As a movie about Billy the Kid, I’d rate it medium to good. The potential was there for this to have been a much better picture though and I can’t help feeling a little disappointed by that.