The Left-Handed Gun (1958) is a powerful, disturbing and unconventional Western, nowadays a classic of the genre, led by the impressive Paul Newman embodying one of the most famous outlaws of the American West.
In New Mexico, a young man, William Bonney, is taken in and employed by a rich farmer. When the latter is killed by four cattlemen led by the local sheriff, William, thereafter nicknamed “Billy the Kid,” swears to avenge the man he considered his father. With his two friends, he embarks on an endless manhunt against the responsible parties.
For his first movie, Arthur Pen decides to stage the story of a legendary character, Billy the Kid. The story is simple and easy to follow, but many twists in the plot make it completely unpredictable. The lively rhythm of the movie and the fight scenes will satisfy action and traditional Western fans. A strong theatricality can be felt, probably due to Penn’s former experience as a theatre producer, and is accentuated by the music. The dialogues are elaborate and intelligent, and they sometimes bring humour to the situation. However, despite these slight hints of comedy, the movie is a tragic and disturbing drama with an uncommon plot which gives the story a singular dimension. The ultimate gun-fight strengthens even more the dramatic side of the story.
Penn conscientiously chose the settings of his film and located the story in a realistic environment in order to bring credibility. But actually the director did not seem to be interested in verisimilitude; he proposed a version that differed from previous adaptations and gave it a very personal and unusual touch. With The Left-Handed Gun, Arthur Penn totally reinvented the Western genre in a way no one had ever done before. He challenged the audience’s expectations on justice and heroism.
Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) is not a traditional hero. The impressive performance of the young and unknown actor can be emphasized as he embodies a complex character with a tormented personality. Billy is a young man who is blinded by his anger and drags his friends into an endless circle of revenge. Paul Newman’s expressive facial expressions are enough to convey the character’s feelings and thoughts. Arthur Penn explains the hero’s behaviour by a psychoanalytical reasoning and introduces psychological elements in his treatment of the character.
The Left-Handed Gun is considered a major work in the history of cinema as it erased the usual boundaries between good and evil. Indeed, Billy provokes mixed feelings, as he is both a valiant hero who wants to bring back justice, and the bad guy whose never-ending thirst for revenge turns everybody against him. At the end of the movie, Billy, who has worn light-coloured clothes throughout the story, suddenly puts on a black hat and a black shirt, symbolically meaning that he finally accepts to be the bad guy. But he loses everyone he cared about and even the one character who trusted him from the start, this strange man with a black hat who appears many times throughout the film, finally turns his back on him and gives him away to the sheriff. Billy ends up wallowing in self-pity, burying forever the hero he thought he was.
Erasing the usual demarcation between good and evil and adding a psychological dimension to the main character, Arthur Penn changed the conventional elements of the western and restyled the genre, giving birth to a film in the revisionist vein which was not well received by the American critics at the time of its release. But its daring experimentation with the classical Western genre, its removal from traditional American patterns and Paul Newman’s acting make it nowadays an essential and undisputed film.
Directed by Arthur Penn
Released in 1958
Based on the play by Gore Vidal
Screenplay by Leslie Stevens
Running time: 102 minutes
Cast: Paul Newman, Lita Milan, John Dehner, James Best