[box cover]

The Left Handed Gun

The Left Handed Gun (1958), a retelling of the legend of William "Billy the Kid" Bonney starring Paul Newman, is a bit of a mess. For starters, it's based on a television script by Gore Vidal, who would later write a bestselling novel about the outlaw (which, in turn, would be made into a not-very-good TV miniseries starring Val Kilmer). Vidal disliked the movie — he didn't write the screenplay — but it's not hard to see which parts of Vidal's work made it into the movie's script, which is credited to Leslie Stevens (who, decades later, would pen such epic works as Return to the Blue Lagoon and Sheena). Much of The Left Handed Gun is stagy and overwrought, with ostensibly ill-educated cowpokes suddenly spouting oddly erudite bits of dialogue. The story is a variation on the same one that's been made into over 40 films that play fast and loose with the gunslinger's life story — a charismatic but illiterate drifter who lives by his gun, Billy (Newman) takes a job on a cattle ranch and finds a father figure in the ranch's owner, John Tunstall (Keith Johnston). But when Tunstall is killed by a crooked sheriff and three other men under orders from a rival cattleman, Billy vows that he'll avenge the murder. With the help of two fellow cowboys (James Best and James Congdon), he goes after each of the killers until he risks the newly announced amnesty program offered by the governor of Texas by shooting the last of the killers on the wedding night of Billy's friend, lawman Pat Garrett (John Dehner). Despite their friendship, Garrett throws Billy in jail — when Billy escapes, killing Garrett's men in the process, Garrett tracks him into the Chihuahuan Desert, where their final, historic showdown occurs. The Left Handed Gun is a small, somewhat odd movie — it's the first feature film directed by Arthur Penn and, while there are moments that hint at the director Penn would eventually become, most of the picture's shot in a straightforward western style. Newman veers between sullen introspection and crazed adolescent energy, showing his Method roots by screwing up his face Brando-style when angry or sad, and doing a lot of broody James Dean-like introspection at other times. It's mostly watchable as an early work by both Penn and Newman, and it's fascinating when we consider where their careers would one day go — but on its own merits, it's strictly a minor effort. Released as part of Warner's seven-film "Paul Newman Collection," The Left Handed Gun offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with little noticeable noise and excellent contrast, taken from a good black-and-white source-print. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (in English or French, with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles) is very good, as well. The commentary track by director Arthur Penn is interesting mostly for his dissection of the three-part story arc and how it shows Billy's maturation as a character — Penn is a thoughtful director, and it's nice to hear his thoughts on what went into crafting the film. Theatrical trailer, slimcase in the box-set.
—Dawn Taylor

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