The Paul Newman Collection: The Left Handed Gun Review

William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, has been portrayed so many times on screen, often at some variance from reality, that it’s hard to take a fresh approach. At the time – 1958 – that’s what The Left Handed Gun seemed to do, to the extent that initial reaction was mixed. It failed at the US box office, but critics overseas – especially in France – took up the film. With time, and its first-time director Arthur Penn’s rise in stature, it has become a film of some influence. On the other hand, with further versions of the story – such as Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and even the youth-oriented retelling that is the pair of Young Guns movies – it can be hard to see that. In the meantime, Penn’s star has definitely gone into eclipse in the last twenty years, so some re-evaluation may be in order.

In his Personal Journey Through American Movies, Martin Scorsese discusses the evolution of genres, taking the Western as one of his examples. By the Fifties, runs the argument, what had been a simple genre with clear demarcations between good and bad, had become darker, more psychologically complex, with conflicted central characters who were often more anti-heroes than heroes. That’s not just the case with John Wayne (as in The Searchers), but also James Stewart in his films directed by Anthony Mann. And that certainly applies to The Left Handed Gun. In this version of the story, written by Leslie Stevens from a TV play by Gore Vidal, Billy (Paul Newman) is an illiterate drifter taken in by rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnson), who becomes a surrogate father. Then Tunstall is killed and Billy swears revenge. Needless to say, much of this is less than accurate: for one thing, the real Billy was not the southpaw from which the film derives its title, but was right-handed.

At a time when even B Westerns could afford a cheap colour process, The Left Handed Gun stands out from most key examples of the genre by being shot in black and white, a format then associated with contemporary realism. (I’m sure there are other monochrome westerns from the late 50s but most major examples I can think of are in colour and often in a Scope process as well.) Its director, Arthur Penn, was one of a generation who made their names in live television. He takes to the big screen as if born to it, producing some real visual coups: a dissolve between Billy describing strategy by drawing on a misted-up window to the scene itself being one of them. Billy is just the first of Penn’s alienated outsiders often driven to violence. A decade later, Penn pushed the boundaries of screen carnage in Bonnie and Clyde: here, he’s restricted by what the censors would allow, but his action scenes are quite tough for the era and often cinematically striking. One shooting, with the victim’s face pressed against a window, even prefigures a similar, though bloodier, scene in the later film. And it’s hard to forget the later scene where Billy appears out of focus as if in a heat haze, like some kind of avenging angel. There’s even a little slow-motion, something that fellow TV graduate Sam Peckinpah would take much further.

Paul Newman gives a vital performance, naivete mixed with a cynical, almost sexual swagger. He’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast, but it’s really Newman’s and Penn’s film. Penn would certainly go on to greater things, becoming one of the best American directors of the 1970s, a decade he helped to usher in with Bonnie and Clyde. With the passing of that decade, Penn had lost his way, and the films he has made after Four Friends have been fairly anonymous, if well enough crafted. As for Newman…well, there are five more to go in this series of reviews.

The Left Handed Gun is released as part of Warners’ Paul Newman Boxset, and is not at this time (December 2006) available separately. The DVD is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 (opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1) and is anamorphically enhanced. As noted above, this is a black and white film, but it’s not the intricate play of light and shade that’s classic Hollywood monochrome. J. Peverell Marley’s photographer is a little over-bright, which has the effect of reducing contrast in cetain scenes. That said, the transfer is sharp when it needs to be, and the grain is natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, both in English and a French dub. There’s little to be said here, except that dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced, the result of Hollywood professional craftsmanship.

The first extra is a commentary by Arthur Penn. And dry it is too: Penn spends much of his time describing the events on screen, and pauses become longer and more frequent. There’s certainly some interesting material here, particularly when Penn describes the differences in approcha between live television and film. The DVD extras are completed by the theatrical trailer (1:48), which tries to sell this film on its action scenes.

The Left Handed Gun is an archetypal cult film: a flop on release but later finding its passionate champions, especially with the interest in Penn’s later career. It remains a striking film with a strong leading performance, well presented on DVD.

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out of 10

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