Billy the Kid gets the art film treatment
The (rather typical) Warner Brothers trailer for The Left Handed Gun trumpets that viewers will see THE TRUE STORY OF BILLY THE KID. Of course they didn’t. Movies never give us that. But that claim in the trailer wasn’t the fault of film-maker Arthur Penn, who lamented that Warners took much of the control away from him, for example not allowing him to edit the picture, handing that job to Folmar Blangsted, and insisting on a bad ending. Penn said of the picture as historical fact, “It’s not accurate at all [but] a completely fanciful version.” He even deliberately introduced historical falsehoods, such as that Bonney was from El Paso, saying, “We were making a definite case to destroy any knowledge of his identity.” That’s fine. It’s a Western movie, not a documentary, and Penn had the right to interpret the tale and play about with historical fact.
Not that he was a director with a deep understanding of the Western. This was his first big-screen oater (he worked in theater and TV before) and indeed his first feature in the chair; he would later do The Missouri Breaks with Marlon Brando and Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffmann, both dubious Westerns, let us say, to be polite. And he brought to the Billy the Kid story arty pretensions.
I say he brought that but as he himself remarked, “Paul [Newman] came with this property. It was his, and Fred’s.” This latter was a reference to Fred Coe, the producer. Newman had at first not had much success on the big screen, unhappy at having to wear a toga in The Silver Chalice in 1954, but mostly consigned to TV work and never doing a Western. But he began leading in features from ’56 on and he really wanted to do a big-screen Western, putting his heart and soul (with the former worn on the sleeve) into the role of Billy. Right-handed, he practiced for hours to become a quick-draw artist with his left, even though Bonney was never known for lightning speed (no one was) and anyway was right-handed. But I guess The Right Handed Gun wouldn’t have been a very exciting title. Newman was still rather in method-acting mode, I fear, and definitely overdoes it on several occasions (you do get the feeling that he was imitating Brando, never a good move) though to be fair, he does manage the adolescent joker quite well too, despite his 33 years.
It was the late 1950s and rebellious teenagers were ‘in’ – in fact James Dean had been talked of to play Billy.
The script was based on the 1955 Gore Vidal TV play The Death of Billy the Kid, as the 1989 TV movie with Val Kilmer would be. This was aired by NBC in 1955, with Newman (then 30) as Bonney, and Frank Overton as Garrett (and Jason Robards as Joe Grant). For the movie version Leslie Stevens was hired to make script changes, which annoyed Vidal.
I think Vidal must have been steeped in the Billy ‘lore’, dating back to Walter Noble Burns in the 1920s and the MGM movies, which had fixed the legend in the public psyche. Many of the ‘facts’ are included in Penn’s picture, such as rancher John Tunstall being an older man who acts as Billy’s mentor. This Tunstall is played by London-born Colin Keith-Johnston, who was 62 (the real Tunstall was 24, barely older than Billy) and for some unknown reason is played with a broad Scots accent. Tom Folliard (James Best) says at one point that “he hails from Ayrshire.” Of course he is a pacifist and hates guns. This too was standard by now.
Much is made throughout the film of Billy’s inability to read. Billy was actually quite a keen reader as a boy and wrote in a rather elegant hand, as we know from a bill of sale he wrote out for a horse.
We see Billy in the first scene (under a dire introductory ballad, as was compulsory in them days) walking, carrying his saddle – not the first or last time such an opening was used. He runs into Tunstall and his partner McSween (who actually was a bible-reading no gun Scot) driving a herd of cattle. Tunstall takes Billy on as a hand, despite the misgivings of his other employees. McSween is played by good old John Dierkes, rather well, dour in a preacher’s frock coat.
Now crooked Sheriff Brady (Robert Foulk) with three henchmen deputies, Morton (Robert Griffin), Moon (Wally Brown) and Hill (Robert Anderson), ambush and kill the peaceable Tunstall. Billy rushes up to the corpse and Newman gives it his all, raging at cruel fate and all. Billy makes a night-long vigil at the side of his late employer’s coffin and tells McSween that he will now avenge Tunstall. “It’s against the bible,” says McSween. But there’s no dissuading the boy. “I got to.”
Now we have a rather odd scene in which Newman again overacts as Bonney feeding nickels into a music box and wildly marching/dancing around the hotel while Pat Garrett comes in and asks for a room. This is the best thing about the film: Dehner as Garrett. He brings a steely presence, a quiet authority and a calming influence to the hitherto over-the-top proceedings. As Penn said, “John was a hell of an actor.” He was indeed, from a Western perspective especially. Over 200 Westerns to his credit, 42 of them big-screen ones, from a Monte Hale oater in 1946 to Support Your Local Gunfighter in 1971, only once a lead (Revolt at Fort Laramie), Dehner was nevertheless really memorable and strong in picture after picture. I reckon that along with James Coburn, he was the best Garrett of them all.
Next, in a famous scene in the bathroom, he recruits Tom O’Folliard (he’s called Folliard here) and Charley Bowdre (Boudre here), Tunstall hands, to his vengeance plan, which he outlines on the steamed-up window with military precision, then the camera focuses through the window down into the street where the plan unfolds. As was customary in Billy legend movies, he guns down Brady (and Morton) in a quick-draw showdown – we know it wasn’t like that but le drame l’exige, you know how it is. Jimmy Best as Folliard and James Congdon as Boudre do a good job as Billy’s young disciples. Congdon was 29 and Best 32, so once again a bit long in the tooth for the roles, but they do slightly punkish teenagers quite well.
Everything happens very fast now. There’s no five-day battle or anything. The mob immediately rushes to burn the McSween house down. That’s where the assassins have taken refuge. The murderous throng is led by Bob Ollinger with his shotgun. He was a Brady thug, you see. And it’s none other than good old Denver Pyle, a Penn favorite who would hunt down Bonnie and Clyde for him a decade or so later. Now, I like Denver, who doesn’t, but well, let’s put it this way: I don’t think he ever held his breath just as the Best Actor Oscar was about to be announced.
A badly burned Billy escapes the inferno and asks to be taken to the town of Madero, where a gunsmith, Saval (Martin Garralaga), lives. Saval is (a) a good healer and (b) has a pretty wife. The wife is Celsa, no not Celsa Guttierez but Celsa Saval. She nurses Billy in bed, as in The Outlaw but this time not badly acted, and guess what. Yup, Billy falls for her and she can’t resist his boyish charms. But Pat Garrett lives in the same town, a kind of Fort Sumner, I suppose (he seems to be a wine merchant of some sort) and he is about to marry Celsa’s cousin (Josephine Parra). The wedding will not go well.
Celsa was played by Lita Milan, of whom IMDb says, “The dark, fiery, unconventionally lovely Lita Milan was a pleasant distraction in B movie crimers, westerns and action adventures and made a brief mark during the 1950s.” Right after this movie she suddenly abandoned her acting career and went off with the playboy son of the notorious Dominican Republic dictator, Rafael Trujillo. They married in 1960, her husband seized power after the assassination of his father in 1961, but the couple were forced to flee the country soon after. Dramatic stuff, huh. Anyway, no more Westerns for Lita.
Billy, Charley and Tom hear from some soldiers of an amnesty – all past crimes will be forgiven, as long as they don’t commit new ones – but they immediately get into a (semi-comic) brawl with the soldiers, and there’s the scene with flour sacks as the three compadres become entirely white. I think it’s more artiness.
Back in Lincoln, everyone thought Billy was burned up in the blaze, so imagine the surprise of the weirdo yellow-press writer, Moultrie (Hurd Hatfield) when he sees Billy in Madero. This figure is more than slightly creepy and he was reflected in Sam Peckinpah’s version of the 1970s in the Bob Dylan character, more woodenly acted and not so crawly. That’s how legends build, as one treatment takes up an idea from another, until they become essential ingredients of the tale. Moultrie highlights the lack of real truth in the myth.
The Texas braggart Joe Grant has in this version become a government man, policing the amnesty, and despite Pat’s sage warnings he gets into it with Billy, who, as tradition dictates, surreptitiously and rather unsportingly (against the Code of the West, surely?) removes some bullets from Grant’s gun. However, in this one he doesn’t kill Grant. Grant is saved by Pat’s pleas for clemency – and to protect the amnesty.
It all gets a bit Freud 101 now as Billy seduces Celsa, fireworks flare to symbolize the passion, and if we are not quite sure of the meaning, the next morning he sadly kicks the dying embers. Then the three pards decided to go after Deputy Moon, see the moon’s reflection in a pool and shoot the moon. Next day they get to shoot the real Moon, or Charley does anyway, thus throwing away the amnesty.
By the way, this famous amnesty of Lew Wallace specifically excluded those already indicted, including Bonney, so it wasn’t a very good plot device, but in the movie they are throwing away a chance of salvation, you see.
Meanwhile there’s no election (there never is in the movies) but Deputy Hill tells Pat that “Judge Davis wants you for sheriff”. Pat declines. No way he’s going to do that. He’s getting married. We see him and his bride standing motionless for 30 seconds for their wedding photo and the three outlaw boys arrive to join in the celebrations. Unfortunately Hill is there too. Billy gives Pat his word that he won’t spoil the wedding by shooting any guests. Billy too has his photo taken, that famous tintype, though it doesn’t look much like the original photograph. But he can’t resist shooting Hill and that tears it for Pat, who now angrily accepts the sheriff’s star. Actually, in this bit Dehner does finally chew the scenery a bit. Maybe he was told to by Penn. It doesn’t convince. He’s much better at ‘quietly steely’.
Pat and his posse catch up with the boys at the adobe rock house. Tom decides to leave and Charley sadly waves goodbye to his pard but Ollinger is in the posse and of course he shoots Tom down with no warning. Only Charley and Billy are now left in the hovel, and Charley is soon hit too. Billy throws the wounded fellow out to be shot down. Billy comes out and surrenders.
At the Lincoln court house, Hill’s widow rails at Billy and Ollinger taunts him. Billy is given a dime-novel about himself, which pleases him, even though he can’t read it. He persuades the unnamed Deputy Bell figure that he wants to go to the outhouse, biffs him, gets his own gun and Ollinger’s shotgun, shoots both deputies and makes a run for it. Ollinger dies with a little mild slo-mo, and Penn got a cross memo from the Warners execs – no slow-motion in Westerns!
Billy goes back to Saval in Madero (“I’ve got nowhere else to go”) but of course Saval isn’t too pleased about seeing his wife’s seducer again. He needn’t worry. Pat arrives, with a sheriff’s star pinned to his John Wayne shirt. Billy in effect commits suicide. He has lost his friends, he can’t read, he has offended Saval and been driven from his last and only home. It’s a pretty dark death. He meets his doom. The yellow journalist covers his mouth in horror.
That’s where it should have ended but Warners insisted on a cheesy epilogue with Pat and his new wife going off to a life of married bliss. Penn said of it, “It doesn’t make any damn sense at all.”
It was shot in black & white by J Peverell Marley (six Westerns, none very special) who did not get on at all well with the director. Penn says on the making-of extra on the DVD that Marley complained, “I got one of them TV guys”. There are some good shots, and the monochrome enhances the noirish tinge to the movie. The sets used were those of Warners’ picture Juarez (1939), though they were pretty dilapidated so they could only use bits here and there.
The picture didn’t do well at the box office. Of course the director blamed the studio’s low-key marketing efforts. Disillusioned, Penn went off to work on Broadway saying, “The movies are not for me. This is not what I do.” He was only paid $17,000 for it anyway. Nor was the critical reception very positive; of course the two things are related. Naturally the French loved it, especially the three boys shooting the moon in the water and the single boot standing in the street when Ollinger is shot. Vidal greatly disliked the film, describing it as “a film only someone French could like.” The Belgian Film Critics Association elected it best picture. Quel honneur. American reviewers, though, were not amused.
The New York Times said, “The picture moves self-consciously, at a snail’s pace. Good players like John Dehner, Lita Milan and John Dierkes are wasted in vaguely defined bit roles. Poor Mr. Newman seems to be auditioning alternately for the Moscow Art Players and the Grand Ole Opry, as he ambles about, brooding, grinning or mumbling endlessly.”
Variety did not exactly enthuse either but liked it a bit better: “The best parts of the film are the moments of hysterical excitement as the three young desperados rough-house with each other as feckless as any innocent boys and in the next instant turn to deadly killing without flicking a curly eyelash.”
Later critics weren’t much kinder. When the picture was released on video in 1987, the New York Times said, “If you think a movie starring Paul Newman and directed by Arthur Penn can’t be all bad, you don’t remember The Left-Handed Gun, which came and went in 1958 and, like the bad guys in westerns, now returns to put a new generation to sleep. Saddled with a pretentious and senseless screenplay about Billy the Kid, this lame oater drags all parties down with it. The direction is awkward-arty, and young Mr. Newman, as Billy, is moody-manic, as he goes about killing four baddies who murdered his kindly boss. The intention seems to be to turn the Kid into a 1950-ish mixed-up delinquent with a soul, James Dean with spurs. Maybe they should have given Mr. Newman a motorcycle; at least he could have escaped.”
Brian Garfield called it a “pastiche of arty gimmickry, slow, [with] self-conscious scripting and murky mood photography.”
I don’t mind it too much.
Well, like it or not, and the consensus is not, The Left Handed Gun was the shape of things to come as far as the Western was concerned. They’d get awfully arty and intense in the coming decades.