THE LEFT-HANDED GUN is one of the many versions of Billy The Kid that have graced the big screen. We’ve all heard and seen them, and those that showed on television, so much that what really happened is no longer known for sure. This movie has all the familiar elements we known, mostly arranged in different order from other tellings. I’d never seen this one before, which makes it, at least on my part, an overlooked movie.
Paul Newman plays the role as a light-hearted kid that liked to dance, get drunk, laugh a lot, generally have a good time. Pretty much like any young male of any period of time one looks into. But he was also a man loyal to his friends and people he respected and when His boss, the Englishman Tunstall(Colin Keith-Johnston), is murdered while they were bringing in a cattle herd, he sets out to right that wrong. he sees the four men riding away and recognizes them. He’d taken a liking to the peaceful, religious man who recognized a quick, though uneducated, mind and encouraged him to learn. The film cemented a growing reputation as a rising young star.
He takes to riding with two friends, Tom Folliard(James Best) and Charlie Boudre(James Congdon), who had been part of Tunstall’s crew.
Billy kills Brady and his deputy, then takes refuge in McSween’s home, which ends up getting burned, Billy barely escaping through a window. Believed dead, he takes refuge in a small village to recover from the bad burn on his gunhand where he meets and becomes friends with merchant Pat Garrett(John Dehner), who frequently warns Billy he should stay out of sight. Garrett is about to get married and invites Billy, who arrives to find the last man left of the four killers there, James Dolan. He’d come to offer Garrett the Marshal’s job and the first job was to arrest Billy. Garrett turns him down, then warns Billy not to start anything at the wedding.
Billy tries, but Dolan keeps looking at him and when he’s posing for the famous picture, the only known one taken of the Kid, he starts mouthing off, ending up with Billy killing him and Garrett taking the job of tracking him down.
A few familiar faces in this one as well. The two deputies Billy kills when he escapes, Deputy Moon(Wally Brown) and Ollinger(Denver Pyle) are two one might know without being able to attach a name.
A lot of the behind the scenes folks went on to other successes. Leslie Stevens adopts Gore Vidal’s play, already presented on television with Newman in the role, and a few year later had great success with the series OUTER LIMITS. Director Arthur Penn is more known for BONNIE AND CLYDE these days. Alexander Courage did the score and as every good Trekker knows, he wrote the famous theme song for the show that started that whole franchise.
The death scene was filmed as a suicide by cop scenario as Billy was unarmed and seemed to go for his gun in the darkness when Pat Garrett killed him.
The title of this film perpetuates the myth of Billy being left-handed, as did all versions of the way Billy has been presented. That famous photo was proved to be a mirror image, reversed, analysis confirmed. Billy’s vest buttons were on the left side, the position women’s clothing had them. His belt buckle prong was backwards and most telling, the loading gate of the Winchester 73 he posed with seemed to be on the left side of the gun, backwards of course. Below are the original presentation on the left and the corrected one on the right.
One thing I stumbled across while doing a little research is that Newman wasn’t the first choice to play Billy in the film. James Dean was to do the role and died in that terrific car crash. Not sure whether that story is true though.
For more overlooked movies, Todd Mason gathers them on Tuesdays at his fine blog, Sweet Freedom.