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USA 1958
Directed by
Arthur Penn
102 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Left Handed Gun

Arthur Penn’s first feature film after a successful career directing television plays is a scrappy affair that in its best parts anticipates and clearly influenced the iconic Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, particularly with respect to his depiction of point-blank violence, the presence of a “back East” observer (Hurd Hadfield) and the whole South-of-the-border thing.

Adapted, surprisingly enough, from a stage play by Gore Vidal. it relates the oft-told story (including most famously by Peckinpah) of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. In this clearly historically approximate version Billy (Paul Newman) is a young hothead with father issues who is befriended by a rancher (Colin Keith-Johnston) who is shot dead by some no-accounts at the height of the Texas cattle wars. Billy decides to kill the perps but in so doing riles Pat Garrett (John Denhner) who agrees to bring him in dead or alive.  

Vidal’s original text lifts the film above the usual Western fare in terms of dramatic substance but Penn tends to fall back on genre conventions (admittedly with a certain tongue-in-cheek wink) and lets the film slip into aw-shucks territory with Billy and his confederates Charlie (James Congdon) and Tom (James Best) periodically a’whoopin’ and a’hollerin’ with youthful glee. 

Newman plays Billy in the typical confused young rebel style (see the publicity poster which describes Bill as a "strange teenage desperado") that at this stage he shared with Brando and until his untimely death, James Dean (Dean had been the original choice for the role and he would have made this a very different film). Newman was much better suited to contemporary dramas and here he doesn’t convince as a loose cannon with homicidal tendencies. The film fails to convincingly establish Billy's near-pathological attachment to his rancher boss or, for that matter, to give sufficient motivation for Garrett to turn on Billy (a messed-up wedding party simply doesn’t do it) and one character, Joe Grant (Ainslie Pryor), who appears for a while to have a significant role in the story simply evaporates.

Evidently made for a teen market, The Left Handed Gun is too patchy to stand alone but as a transitional Western it will be of interest to genre buffs.




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