Arthur Penn’s film debut is great, a near-classic, and almost completely forgotten. The revolution arrived ten years too early.
The Left Handed Gun is a highly fictionalized account of the infamous Lincoln County War. Tunstall, a kind horse trader, takes in a drifter named Billy (Paul Newman), but when ranchers murder Tunstall over his cattle business, Billy becomes a weapon of vengeance. Billy, now called “The Kid,” leads a small gang of loyalists against Tunstall’s killers, ignoring ceasefires and calls for amnesty. Billy’s friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner) tires of the chaos and turns on Billy, vowing to bring him in. With the law (and Billy’s own legend) closing in, Billy realizes his mistakes and accepts death, allowing himself to be shot, passing out of the west and into history.
Arthur Penn’s first movie began, appropriately enough, as an episode of live television. In 1955, the Philco Television Playhouse aired “The Death of Billy the Kid,” written by Gore Vidal and starring a then-unknown Paul Newman as Billy. The episode was a hit, and Warner Bros. commissioned a feature version, seeking a TV director to guide the low-budget story to screen. The studio chose Penn, likely because he was low cost and because he had worked with Newman, directing him in the Playwrights ’56 episode, “The Battler.” (A persistent myth claims Newman took over the role of Billy from James Dean following Dean’s death—except that Dean was still alive and well when the original Philco episode aired. The mythmakers are actually thinking of “The Battler,” which Dean had been set to star in. In a way, Dean’s death may have inadvertently led to Penn’s film career, which is a more interesting piece of trivia, anyway.)
Penn had become fascinated with film’s potential as art, a somewhat radical idea in America that had been gaining traction in Europe. He arrived on the Warner Bros. backlot brimming with ideas and idealism, but ran into a stone wall of Hollywood reality. The backlot set was crumbling (in fact, it allegedly collapsed the day after shooting wrapped), and his little production was roundly ignored, at least until shooting wrapped. The film was taken out of Penn’s hands and cut together by career editors who had never seen the footage, spoken to Penn, or spent a day on set. Among the losses: Penn’s original ending—a candlelight wake for Billy—was replaced with uplifting, if nonsensical, dialogue from Garrett’s wife asking him home after a job well done.
The Left Handed Gun premiered in May of 1958 to mass apathy. Audiences and critics were bewildered by the unconventional western, and a disheartened Penn believed he’d never make another film. He changed his mind when The Left Handed Gun finally found appreciation—in France. French critics, already in line with Penn’s ideas of film art, immediately understood and embraced the movie. Their encouragement energized Penn, and when Hollywood asked him to helm the feature version of The Miracle Worker, he gladly signed on.
Penn’s purpose in The Left Handed Gun is to show how out of whack the Hollywood depiction of the west is with reality. Outlaws were often psychopaths or arrested adolescents, details that didn’t sell enough penny books on the East Coast, and therefore quickly found the trash bin. Penn shows how one such outlaw becomes a hero to millions with the right application of myth.
Pat Garrett’s wedding is the centerpiece of the film. Garrett has been like a stern older brother to Billy, chiding him about all this killing and nonsense while serving him a big plate of stew and sharing a laugh. He has just one request for Billy, one very ominous, very obvious request. “Don’t cause trouble at my wedding,” Garrett says, presumably followed by a big flash of lightning. Sure enough, at the wedding Billy tries to play nice and forgo killing Tunstall’s last living murderer, but he loses control, firing the shot—significantly, while posing for a photograph—and rationalizing his murder with Cops and Robbers rules (“Well, he was over there, so he wasn’t at your wedding anymore.”) The scene sums up Penn’s themes in a tidy package and sends the movie on a bullet towards Billy’s third-act confrontation with Garrett.
I couldn’t find video of the scene, but you can get a glimpse at the 1:25 mark of the trailer.
When I began this Project, I framed Arthur Penn as a failed rebel, a man whose desire to buck the Hollywood system led inevitably to his ejection from that system. So far, I’ve talked mostly about the results of his defeat—his late misfit films and outright failures—and not with the revolution itself, mostly because his early films were all pretty great. Maybe Penn didn’t fall as quickly or dramatically as, say, Orson Welles—and more of Penn’s wounds were self-inflicted—but his career follows a similar line: amazing early promise followed by a lifetime of what-ifs.
I’m not sure the term “revisionist western” has meaning anymore, because today every western is “revisionist.” The old myths have been so thoroughly punched through that there’s nothing to revise. If I wanted to reinvent the western today, I’d have to eliminate mud, murder, and moral ambiguity. In other words, I’d have to go back to the time when Arthur Penn made The Left Handed Gun. Penn’s film swaggered into theatres when audiences weren’t yet accustomed to swallowing irony with their escapism, and the movie failed because of it.
In fact, if you visit the Wikipedia page on “revisionist westerns” today, you’ll find no mention of The Left Handed Gun, not even on the “comprehensive” list that’s actually way more comprehensive than it needs to be. (OK, High Noon arguably belongs on the list, but Shane has always seemed to me as a film whose revisionism is more accident than assault.)
But how else do you define a film this obsessed with puncturing western myth, as obsessed as Unforgiven, a movie that still surprised audiences decades later? Like Eastwood’s masterpiece, The Left Handed Gun is preoccupied with the fiction of the west and even includes a character that literally follows the outlaws and writes their stories. Actually, Gun carries the idea further. When Billy disappoints his chronicler, it’s the writer who turns him in to Garrett. The real Billy has been greatly outpaced by his own legend, and now one of them has to go. It’s a theme that makes sense to us today, but must have seemed out of place a full decade before The Wild Bunch and its violence, or four years before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said to print the legend.
Paul Newman seemed to sense he was involved in something special, and tackles the role with a manic, Brando-esque performance that put him on a path to bigger things. Newman is a live wire in the film, always an itchy finger away from violence or laughter. Penn saw Billy as a grown child failing at adulthood. Billy and his gang, left without father figure Tunstall, form their own family and carve a place in the world the only way they know how. It’s a theme Penn would revisit in films like Alice’s Restaurant, The Missouri Breaks, Four Friends, and others. Billy erupts into violence because he thinks it will make him a man. He doesn’t understand the implications of his actions. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
While Newman plays with the notion of a hero, Penn plays with the western myth, dumping the pieces out onto the carpet and assembling them as he pleases. Draped in grays for most of the film, Pat and Billy gradually change their wardrobes to white and black, respectively, as their legend grows, as if we’re watching our own perceptions of them take form. Later, Billy engages in a gunfight in a hut wallpapered with his wanted posters. Why are the posters there? Did Billy wish to admire his legend? Maybe it’s a visual reminder that as the stories surrounding Billy swell, there’s no place left where he can escape them. Even at home, poor William “Billy” Bonney cannot escape the presence and the stare of Billy the Kid. The stories will eventually eradicate the truth of the man.
Nobody knows for sure how many people William Bonney killed. However many it was, it seems as if Billy the Kid killed one more.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)