THE LEFT HANDED GUN has two left feet and it methodically shoots itself in both of them. Arthur Penn’s feature debut as director works a screenplay by Leslie Stevens (who later created The Outer Limits TV series) off “The Death Of Billy the Kid”, a teleplay Gore Vidal wrote in 1955. Paul Newman starred in it on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and repeats the role in this 1958 opus of Method anguish, a psychologist’s couch western so “in there” in its weirdness it would make more sense if was on The Outer Limits.
Restless and volatile William Bonney (Newman) and a couple of not-too-bright pals flee justice after Bonney kills lawmen who murdered a friend. More killings ensue, and ultimately, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who had also befriended the young rascal, tracks Billy down.
Though the script sticks fairly close to the general string of events that led to the everlasting lore, legend and licensing of Billy the Kid, the wackdoodle interpretation by the director and several of the actors is just hysterically bad. Critics took it to task and box-office was lacking; the gross of $4,400,000 put it just 54th place among the year’s lineup. Penn had directed 39 episodes on 6 different anthology TV series. After the failure of this picture, he returned to stage productions for four years until 1962’s The Miracle Worker, which was a solid hit. While U.S. reviewers dismissed it, it did garner good press in France, causing Vidal, no fan of what Penn and Stevens had done to his material, to offer it was “a film only someone French could like.”
Newman, 33, was coming on strong in ’58, with three hits–Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (his first Oscar nomination), The Long Hot Summer and Rally ‘Round The Flag Boys!, but his bizarre Billy is enough to get the goat of his most loyal fans. He famously knocked his 1954 big screen debut in the memorably silly The Silver Chalice as his barrel-bottom selection. Sorry, he’s much worse here, with a truly goony sally into Shrinkville that comes off like Frank Gorshin doing a mashup of Brando and James Dean at their most mannered. It’s, like, Paul Newman, and he’s….awful. *
He’s joined in the wild overplaying by the normally arresting James Best (bonkers here) and the dependably odd Hurd Hatfield (glaringly out of place). Second-billed Lita Milan, as a married Mexican lady Bonney seduces, pancakes out, done no favors by the script. **
Apart from the well-handled death scene given to bad guy Denver Pyle (later memorably done with R.G. Armstong in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid), the action is poorly handled, especially an absurd brawl scene more fitting for The Three Stooges. The movie has one saving grace–a really fine performance by the always rock-solid John Dehner as Garrett: his calm and confident demeanor and delivery hands down the best thing in the whole shootin’ match.
102 minutes, with James Congdon, John Dierkes, Colin Keith-Johnston, Paul Smith, Nestor Paiva.
* Who doesn’t like Paul Newman? A great guy, husband, citizen, entrepreneur, humanitarian. And actor–but, like anyone else, he could strike out—The Silver Chalice, The Outrage, The Secret War Of Harry Frigg, Quintet, When Time Ran Out. His eight cowpoke ventures–Old West and New—were all varying degrees of cynical, upending the orthodox take on the genre. It worked like a dream in Hud, Hombre and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, less so but still amusingly in The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean. Then you get the lame The Outrage, Pocket Money and Buffalo Bill And The Indians. But The Left Handed Gun occupies an outhouse all its own.
** Lita Milan’s five-year run at playing assorted fiery ethnic temptresses ended in 1959 when she married the playboy son of the dictator of the Dominican Republic. Exotic ‘Lita Milan’ was Hungarian-Polish, born in Brooklyn as Iris Maria Lia Menshell.