The Left Handed Gun (1958)

One of the many movies about the life and times of William H. Bonney, generally referred to as Billy the Kid, and one of the most controversial. It marks the feature film debut of former TV-director Arthur Penn, who would become one of the most distinguished directors of his generation. The title refers to the popular belief - widespread throughout much of the 20th Century - that the Kid was left-handed, a false conclusion drawn from the iconic ferrotype photograph which turned out to be a reverse. 

The screenplay by Leslie Stevens (based on a teleplay by Gore Vidal) portrays the Kid as an angry young man, the archetypical rebel of the decade, the fifties: misunderstood, head-strong and resentful, a young man who believes the stories written about him by the so-called yellow press. He's a rebel without a cause who finds a cause after his substitute father - the British immigrant John Tunstall - is killed by a corrupt sheriff and his deputies. He befriends Pat Garrett, the new sheriff, a wise and sympathetic man who becomes a new substitute father to him and warns him not to take matters in his own hands, but the boy just won't listen ...

No serious attention is paid to the historical background of the Lincoln County war, and even though it tells Billy's story in terms of social alienation, the key conflict is defined (as more often in Penn's movies) in strictly personal terms (1); it's a psychological, not a political movie. Pat Garrett is a lawman, a representative of the authoritarian world Billy rejects, but he's a good lawman, one Billy respects as a person; the crucial moment - the point of no return for Billy - is an incident which takes place on Garrett's wedding day, when Billy shoots the last of the four persons responsible for the murder of John Tunstall, breaking his vow not to create any trouble on his friend's wedding party. Pat Garrett cannot accept this, not as a lawman, not as a father, not as a friend.

Historically this is all nonsense. Billy was not an orphan who came out of nowhere, as suggested in the opening minutes of the movie (2), and Pat Garrett had completely different (basically financial) reasons for chasing the Kid; he had accepted the job of sheriff because was a married man and needed the money. Garret and the Kid knew each other, but there's no real evidence that they had been close friends; over the years it has become customary to cast middle-aged actors as Garrett and Tunstall to suggest a father-son relationship, but in reality Garrett was only nine years older than the Kid while Tunstall was only 25 when he was shot in 1878. Freud has elbowed out reality in this aspect. 

Based on a teleplay, the movie cannot conceal its origins; dialogue and acting are often stagey, closer to Tennessee Williams than Ford or Hawks. This stagey style has a remarkable side effect: Newman's Billy almost looks like a Shakespearean anti-hero in some scenes. It's method acting all the way, but Newman successfully uses his boyish charm to bridge the age difference with the character (almost unbelievable that he was 33 at the time). John Dehner isn't bad, but compared to Newman he lacks screen presence and his sensible Garret offers not enough offset for Newman's impulsive, mentally unstable Billy.

The film was cut by the studio against Penn's wishes. According to Penn the cuts destroyed the film's rhythm; he also had differences with the crew over a couple of key scenes such as Billy painting a scheme on a steamy window, the image dissolving into the actual events. For the killing of Ollinger he wanted a shot of Ollinger looking into the sun, so that the bullet seemed to come from nowhere. But the director of photography refused to film directly into the sun, so Penn had to work out a compromise with him (3).

Penn's movie wasn't successful at home but it was praised up by French critics and still seems to be more popular in Europe than at home (4). It is flawed, but there's more than enough to admire in his interpretation of the legend, and the movie's assets surely outweigh its shortcomings. There are several terrific moments, the most memorable of them all this scene in which Ollinger is shot: there's a brief moment of slow motion, but the action is cut half-way and the second half of the scene is shown from a different angle, with the motion slightly sped-up, as if the body is slammed into the ground by the impact of the bullet; and then there is this little girl, running towards the body, pointing at Ollinger's boot, erect beside the dead body. It's a harrowing scene, grim and bizarre, almost surreal. It most certainly influenced Peckinpah.

* (1) Philip French, Westerns, p. 121. In his words: "(...) its basic structure is much the same as that of all his movies (...) two cultures confront each other - a settled, social world growing increasingly authoritarian, and a freewheeling, anarchic community becoming increasingly corrupt. between these two irreconcilable milieux a pair of contrasted (...) figures come and go (...)"

* (2) He was born out of Irish immigrants as William Henri McCarty Jr. (most probably in 1859), but William Bonney was the name he used at the height of his notoriety. Occasionally he was also called Henri Antrim; his mother remarried with William Antrim in 1873. He most probably changed his name on a couple of occasions because he had become a wanted man after killing Frank "Windy" Cahill in 1877. Many frontier persons went under different names; it was an easy way to 're-invent' oneself before the time of social security numbers or other identifiers (Special thanks to Tom Betts, Jim Trumbo and Antony O'Donnell)

* (3) I owe this information to Dirk Marburger, a member (Stanton) of the Spaghetti Western Database forum; the info comes from a German book by Lars-Olav Beier and Robert Müller and from an accompanying documentary film shown on TV about his work. An interview with Arthur Penn about his life and career was the starting point for both. Penn also talks about these problems on the commentary track of the DVD. 

* (4) Things can of course be looked at and judged from different angles; for a less positive comment, see Ron Scheer's take on this movie:


  1. John Dehner saves the film for me. Paul Newman's method style doesn't work in a western.
    Though he was great in Hud.


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