Arthur Penn’s “The Left Handed Gun” is a James Dean film without James Dean. The angst, tormented, misunderstood youth Dean portrayed in “Rebel without a Cause” and “East of Eden” is all here. This role was originally scheduled for James Dean who died in the well-documented car crash on September 11, 1955. Paul Newman who at this point in his career was looked at as a Marlon Brando/James Dean wanna be was selected to replace Dean as his previously did in “Somebody up There Likes Me”. Based on a television play by Gore Vidal, Newman play’s Billy the Kid as a tormented misunderstood, inarticulate, hot headed, and resentful youth whose one father figure, the English cattleman John Tunstall, was gun-down in cold blood by a crooked sheriff and his deputies. This was the start of the famed Lincoln County war. While based on fact this is a highly fictionalized version of the conflict, one example is Tunstall who is portrayed as an older man so he could represent a father figure to Billy was less than a month shy of twenty-five when he was killed.
Billy is hell bent on revenge, one by one taking the life of each of the four men who killed John Tunstall in cold blood. Along the way, he meets Pat Garrett (John Dehner) who befriends Billy but warns him against seeking revenge against the killers especially after an amnesty was issued by the governor for all the killing during the Lincoln County War. However, Billy has a narrow vision and even after promising Pat Garrett that he would not cause any trouble on his Wedding day, guns down the last of Tunstall’s killers.
Penn already displays some of the themes that would be prevalent in his later work, the outlaw as a sympathetic anti-authority figure, the breakdown of myths and sudden unexpected violence breaking out causing pandemonium. Also, notable is the use of actor Denver Pyle who portrayed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in “Bonnie & Clyde” and here plays a deputy sheriff, who kills one of Billy’s gang (James Best) before being shot gunned to death himself by Billy. Penn loves outsiders and continued to portray them throughout his career in films like “Bonnie and Clyde“, “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Little Big Man .” He has also taken film genres and given them a revisionist look , The P.I. in “Night Moves”, the gangster film in “Bonnie and Clyde” and of course the western in “Little Big Man”, “The Missouri Breaks” and “The Left Handed Gun.”
Paul Newman’s portrays Billy as inarticulate, uneducated with a boyish charm (Newman charm to be more accurate). He is sometime over the top and actually gave a better performance as the inarticulate, uneducated with boyish charm, Rocky Graziano in the 1956 film “Somebody up There Likes Me.” Newman was just becoming a major star at this time and would go on to become an even bigger star and a better actor as his career progressed. John Dehner is okay as Pat Garrett, though I did find both James Best and James Congdon as Billy’s two gang members unconvincing.
“The Left Handed Gun” is a flawed film that is more interesting than most successful works, unique in its vision in a decade known for its bland conformity.