Friday, July 8, 2011

The Left Handed Gun

The PFA had an Arthur Penn retrospective in June. I only saw one film from the series.

The Left Handed Gun starring Paul Newman; directed by Arthur Penn; (1958)

I had seen several of the films in the series previously - Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde and The Missouri Breaks. I would like to have watched The Chase and Little Big Man.


I was confused about this film prior to the screening. I went in thinking The Left Handed Gun was a television playhouse production. PFA programmer Steve Seid clarified matters by mentioning Newman had portrayed Billy the Kid in the The Death of Billy the Kid (1955). That production was a Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse episode, directed by Robert Mulligan and writing credits by Gore Vidal. The Left Handed Gun is based on Vidal's material but is a different production with only Newman returning. It was also Penn's directorial debut. As I recall, Seid said the studios took control of the film from Penn or edited it against his wishes.

I was expecting an exploration of Billy's psyche. The film didn't really provide any new insights to me. Basically, Billy was self-conscious and eager to burnish his own legend. Having read a book on Billy and seeing Peckinpah's take earlier ths year, I was curious to see how Penn & Newman would interpret him. As portrayed by Newman, Billy is a man-child, illiterate, a killer by age 11 and a braggart who quickly believes the legend of Billy the Kid which he himself has so carefully constructed. When Newman is not manic mode, he internalizes much of Billy's deeper emotions. The result, for me, was an uneven movie that left me futilely searching for clues to Billy's psychological make-up.

I also thought the film added a latent homosexuality to Billy's confusion in a way that only Gore Vidal could write. Alas, that was The Death of Billy the Kid and was specifically excised from The Left Handed Gun. That's one more likely reason Penn was less than satisfied with the end result in The Left Handed Gun. I have to agree with Penn; The Left Handed Gun was interesting but ulimately less than satisfying for me.

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