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William Bonney - Billy the Kid - gets a job with a cattleman known as 'The Englishman,' and is befriended by the peaceful, religious man. But when a crooked sheriff and his men murder the Englishman because he plans to supply the local Army fort with his beef, Billy decides to avenge the death by killing the four men responsible, throwing the lives of everyone around him - Tom and Charlie, two hands he worked with; Pat Garrett, who is about to be married; and the kindly Mexican couple who take him in when he's in trouble - into turmoil, and endangering the General Amnesty set up by Governor Wallace to bring peace to the New Mexico Territory. Written by
Gary Dickerson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Interestingly, the title of this movie promotes a common misconception that was proved untrue in 1986. Two almost identical tintypes of Billy the Kid were taken at the same time in 1880. The original of one tintype disappeared years ago. The second original tintype was preserved for years in the Sam Diedrick family and came to light only in 1986. Since tintypes are reversed images, the picture from the first tintype led to the myth of the left-handed gun. After the second tintype came to light, the reversed image was reversed to show the Kid as he actually posed, with a Winchester carbine in the left hand and his holstered Colt single-action on his right hip. See Utley, Robert M., Billy the Kid, A Short and Violent Life, University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Statement following page 110 alongside the picture of Billy the Kid. See more »
The film is about western outlaw Billy the Kid, who was in fact right-handed. See more »
Based on Gore Vidal's play (which had already been filmed once for television with Newman), THE LEFT HANDED GUN is an unusual addition to the western genre, with several considerable attempts at psychoanalysis that were slightly ahead of the time for this type of picture. The film is more or less a bio of infamous outlaw Billy the Kid, with the novelty that Billy (played by Newman) is sympathetically portrayed more as a misunderstood youth rather than an outright criminal. Director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Leslie Stevens (working from Vidal's original play) have done a commendable job at presenting Vidal's revolutionist vision of Billy, even though the film sometimes rambles and lacks the streamlined momentum that made Penn's similar BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) an American film masterpiece. The entire story was filmed much more effectively in Sam Peckinpah's cult classic PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973), but THE LEFT HANDED GUN stands as an interesting curio and a film that (aside from some overwrought acting) has aged very well.
This was yet another role that was originally intended to be played by James Dean that Newman stepped into after that young actor's tragic death. Unlike 1956's SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (which Newman played to perfection), I actually think that Dean might have actually been better suited to play Billy the Kid, as his nervy stance and cocksure demeanor have yet to be match by anyone and possibly could have enhanced the role even further. Newman is still quite good, however, playing the role as closely to Vidal's original concept as possible, and there is a particularly lovely scene with Newman's reaction as Billy to a Biblical verse remaining one of my favorite pieces of reactive acting ever. The sympathetic portrayal of Billy the Kid also gave Newman his first real shot at playing an anti-hero, a task that he would later perfect in the 24-Karat film masterpieces THE HUSTLER (1961) and HUD (1963).
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