The Left Handed Gun (1958)

102 or 105 mins | Biography, Western | 17 May 1958

Director:

Arthur Penn

Writer:

Leslie Stevens

Producer:

Fred Coe

Cinematographer:

Peverell Marley

Production Designer:

Art Loel

Production Company:

Haroll Productions, Inc.
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HISTORY

Paul Newman's credit above the film's title reads "Paul Newman as Billy the Kid." There are no additional character credits on the film. Although the onscreen credits read "based on a novel by Gore Vidal," The Left Handed Gun was actually based on Vidal's teleplay for the 1955 Philco Playhouse production entitled "The Death of Billy the Kid." Arthur Penn directed the teleplay, which was produced by frequent collaborator Fred Coe and starred Paul Newman. The Var review mistakenly did not include the name of actor John Dehner or his character, "Pat Garrett," in the cast list of the film.
       The real Billy the Kid, who was born Henry McCarty in New York City on 28 Nov 1859, changed his name to William Antrim when his widowed mother remarried. Traveling West at an early age, he assumed the name William H. Bonney and soon earned a reputation as a "fast gun" and killer, known as "Billy the Kid." After Billy was imprisoned in Mesilla, NM, he escaped but was tracked down by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who shot and killed the outlaw on 14 Jul 1881 in Fort Sumner, NM. As in the film, Billy's friends, Tom Folliard and Charlie Boudre, died before him. The film altered and fictionalized some of the names, places and details of Billy's life and death. As noted in some reviews, although the real Billy the Kid died at age twenty-one, Newman was in his early thirties when The Left Handed Gun was made.
       The Lincoln County War (1878--1881), which was alluded to in the film, was one of the most famous ... More Less

Paul Newman's credit above the film's title reads "Paul Newman as Billy the Kid." There are no additional character credits on the film. Although the onscreen credits read "based on a novel by Gore Vidal," The Left Handed Gun was actually based on Vidal's teleplay for the 1955 Philco Playhouse production entitled "The Death of Billy the Kid." Arthur Penn directed the teleplay, which was produced by frequent collaborator Fred Coe and starred Paul Newman. The Var review mistakenly did not include the name of actor John Dehner or his character, "Pat Garrett," in the cast list of the film.
       The real Billy the Kid, who was born Henry McCarty in New York City on 28 Nov 1859, changed his name to William Antrim when his widowed mother remarried. Traveling West at an early age, he assumed the name William H. Bonney and soon earned a reputation as a "fast gun" and killer, known as "Billy the Kid." After Billy was imprisoned in Mesilla, NM, he escaped but was tracked down by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who shot and killed the outlaw on 14 Jul 1881 in Fort Sumner, NM. As in the film, Billy's friends, Tom Folliard and Charlie Boudre, died before him. The film altered and fictionalized some of the names, places and details of Billy's life and death. As noted in some reviews, although the real Billy the Kid died at age twenty-one, Newman was in his early thirties when The Left Handed Gun was made.
       The Lincoln County War (1878--1881), which was alluded to in the film, was one of the most famous range wars in Western American history. John Tunstall and his attorney, Alexander McSween, were on one side of the war of rival New Mexican cattle barons. Billy the Kid became one of a group of cowboys known as "The Regulators," who fought on the same side as Tunstall and McSween. As in the film, Tunstall, though unarmed, was shot to death by supporters of his rivals, among them members of a sheriff's posse. In late 1878, amnesty was granted to all factions by newly appointed territorial governor Gen. Lew Wallace to all individuals who had not been charged with or convicted of a crime.
       Although the film's title refers to the long-held, popular belief that Billy was left-handed, evidence and modern historical research confirms that he was right-handed. (For additional information on this issue, please consult the entry for the 1941 M-G-M picture Billy the Kid , directed by David Miller and starring Robert Taylor in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 .) Penn and Coe discussed the issue of Billy's left-handedness in an interview in LAT printed just after the end of principal photography. Penn did not take a stand on whether or not Billy was physically left-handed but stated "We believe that, spiritually and psychologically, he WAS left-handed. He saw everything 'through a glass darkly,' and we are using the glass symbolically throughout the film."
       Early in the film, Tunstall reads the entire "Through a glass darkly" quotation from St. Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians , 13:11-12: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known." Billy repeats the phrase "through a glass darkly" later in the film, and its significance as an explanation of the character's final moments was mentioned in several reviews and in modern sources.
       The Left Handed Gun marked the first feature film of Penn (1922--2010), who previously had directed both on Broadway and on television. Penn's direction received praise from some reviews, including Var , which stated that Penn "shows himself in command of the medium, using motion picture technique and advantages...not available elsewhere, to their fullest value." Some reviews, though, found fault with the more stylistic aspects of the film: in one scene, for example, Billy draws the plans for the first killings on a steamed windowpane overlooking the street where he subsequently kills "Morton" and "Sheriff Brady." Another scene, which has been included in documentaries on film history and Newman's career, shows Billy repeatedly putting coins into a large music box that plays the popular Civil War tune "The Battle-Cry of Freedom (Rally Round the Flag)." Billy manically waves his arm as if leading a band, then marches around the hotel and bar, carrying a broom for a rifle. Modern sources also point to the film as a foreshadowing of Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70 ).
       Some modern sources have speculated on a theme of latent homosexuality of Billy, but contemporary reviews did not allude to this. The only hints of this theme are the indication that Billy is too devoted to Tunstall, whom he had only briefly known, and his relationship with Garrett. Modern sources state that portions of the film were shot at the Conejo Ranch in Los Angeles and in Santa Fe, NM, and that Jack Williams was a stuntman.
       There have been many films based on the life of Billy the Kid. For information on those films, please consult the aforementioned entry for the 1941 Billy the Kid . Vidal's "The Death of Billy the Kid" was also the basis for the 1989 TNT cable channel movie Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid , which was directed by William A. Graham and starred Val Kilmer and Duncan Regehr. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
28 Apr 1958.
---
Daily Variety
23 Apr 1958
p. 3.
Film Daily
23 Apr 1958
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
3 May 1957
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jun 1957
p. 16.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Jul 1957
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Nov 1957
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Apr 1958
p. 3.
Los Angeles Examiner
8 May 1958
Section 3, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
4 Aug 1957
Section IV, p. 2.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
26 Apr 1958
p. 809.
New York Times
8 May 1958
p. 36.
Variety
30 Apr 1958
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Haroll Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCER
Prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
Cost des
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the teleplay "The Death of Billy the Kid" by Gore Vidal on Philco Television Playhouse (NBC, 24 July 1955).
AUTHOR
MUSIC
"The Battle-Cry of Freedom (Rally Round the Flag)" by George F. Root.
SONGS
Ballad by William Goyen and Alexander Courage.
DETAILS
Release Date:
17 May 1958
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 7 May 1958
Production Date:
late June--late July 1957
Copyright Claimant:
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Copyright Date:
17 May 1958
Copyright Number:
LP14503
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
102 or 105
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
18709
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the late 1870s, as taciturn young William Bonney walks across the open range in Lincoln County, New Mexico, he encounters cattle drovers working for British-born rancher Tunstall. A kind, well-read man who dislikes guns, Tunstall offers Billy a job and a horse. Although Billy wears his gun belt low, like a gunfighter, and an older cowboy recognizes Billy as the boy who once killed a man who insulted his mother, Tunstall takes a liking to Billy and quickly develops a bond with him. When Tunstall sets out alone to ride into Lincoln to make arrangements for his cattle, Billy thinks he hears something in the hills and wants to come along as protection, but Tunstall refuses. Moments later, Tunstall is killed by men working for rival rancher Morton and Lincoln’s Sheriff Brady. A bitter and disconsolate Billy stays up all night sitting next to Tunstall’s coffin, until McSween, one of Tunstall’s close friends, assures him that Tunstall would not want Billy to “take the other way” of vengeance. After Tunstall is buried, Billy shows four bullets to Tom Folliard and Charlie Boudre, two young cowboys who also worked for Tunstall, telling them that they are for Morton and Brady and the actual killers, Moon and Hill. Although Tom and Charlie are reluctant to risk their lives for their employer, Billy shames them by pointing out that Tunstall was a good man—and unarmed when killed. Later, when Billy and Tom confront Morton and Brady in the street, Billy quickly outdraws and kills both men. Billy then runs to McSween's house but is startled when McSween angrily calls him a murderer. ... +


In the late 1870s, as taciturn young William Bonney walks across the open range in Lincoln County, New Mexico, he encounters cattle drovers working for British-born rancher Tunstall. A kind, well-read man who dislikes guns, Tunstall offers Billy a job and a horse. Although Billy wears his gun belt low, like a gunfighter, and an older cowboy recognizes Billy as the boy who once killed a man who insulted his mother, Tunstall takes a liking to Billy and quickly develops a bond with him. When Tunstall sets out alone to ride into Lincoln to make arrangements for his cattle, Billy thinks he hears something in the hills and wants to come along as protection, but Tunstall refuses. Moments later, Tunstall is killed by men working for rival rancher Morton and Lincoln’s Sheriff Brady. A bitter and disconsolate Billy stays up all night sitting next to Tunstall’s coffin, until McSween, one of Tunstall’s close friends, assures him that Tunstall would not want Billy to “take the other way” of vengeance. After Tunstall is buried, Billy shows four bullets to Tom Folliard and Charlie Boudre, two young cowboys who also worked for Tunstall, telling them that they are for Morton and Brady and the actual killers, Moon and Hill. Although Tom and Charlie are reluctant to risk their lives for their employer, Billy shames them by pointing out that Tunstall was a good man—and unarmed when killed. Later, when Billy and Tom confront Morton and Brady in the street, Billy quickly outdraws and kills both men. Billy then runs to McSween's house but is startled when McSween angrily calls him a murderer. Meanwhile, townsmen chasing Billy set fire to McSween's house. McSween dies as the house is engulfed in flames, while Mrs. McSween, who was not at home, frantically begs them to stop. When the embers are later searched, it is concluded that both Billy and McSween died in the fire, although Billy has escaped and joined Tom on the trail. Feverish from his burns, Billy insists on going to Madeiro to see an old friend, the gun maker Saval. Once in Madeiro, Billy is reunited with another friend, Pat Garrett. Shortly after Charlie arrives in Maderio, Billy recovers from his wounds. One day, a small group of American soldiers enters town to distribute leaflets stating that newly appointed territorial governor Lew Wallace has issued a general amnesty order for all those involved in the Lincoln County War. The information is later confirmed by Joe Grant, a friend of Pat who has been appointed to monitor the amnesty. Tom and Charlie are elated because they want to go home, but Billy still plans to kill Moon and Hill. Although Tom tries to talk Billy out of more killing, Billy is adamant. After the three friends ride into Lincoln, Charlie has a child summon Moon to the sheriff's office. Once there, the frightened Moon says that he only did what Brady ordered and tries to convince Billy that "it's over" and no one wants “to get” him anymore. While Billy is considering Moon's words, Charlie impulsively shoots Moon, killing him. Tom is furious that Charlie has broken the amnesty but accompanies him and Billy to a hideout on the range. After Moon’s murder, Hill implores Pat to come back to Lincoln and become the sheriff, but Pat declines because he is about to be married. On the day of his wedding, Billy, Tom and Charlie ride into Madeiro. Pat asks them not to cause trouble during the wedding and Billy promises to be good, even though he sees Hill in the distance. During the celebration, when Billy is posing for a picture, Hill yells that he is not a killer and only intended to arrest Tunstall. He also says that he would not shoot anyone who did not draw on him first. Billy remains silent, but when Hill starts to reach for his gun, Billy quickly draws his, precipitating a melee that results in Hill’s death and Tom being wounded. Pat is furious that Billy has broken his word and frightened his wife and their friends. When Billy and Charlie ride out of town with Tom, Pat vows to become sheriff and put Billy in jail. Some time later, Tom has partially recovered but misses his home and decides to leave their hideout. Billy give Tom supplies and helps him mount his horse, but coldly says “that skinny dog ran off—I don’t want you” when he rides off. Unknown to the young outlaws, Pat is leading a posse that has taken cover nearby. When Tom is at the top of a ridge and stops to exchange waves with Charlie, Ollinger, a shotgun-carrying member of the posse, shoots and kills Tom. Although Pat had warned Ollinger not to shoot, a gunfight now ensues in which Charlie is killed and Billy eventually surrenders. After Billy is sentenced to hang for his crimes, people start to pour into Lincoln to witness the execution. As Pat tells his wife, Billy is now famous. Moultrie, a man who has followed Billy’s exploits, visits him to display pulp magazines with stories of his exploits that have been published in the East. Before the execution can take place, Billy escapes, murdering his kind young guard as well as Ollinger. After his escape, Billy is helped by strangers and soon arrives in Madeiro. There he again encounters Moultrie, who shows him pictures of Charlie and Tom’s bodies. When Billy rebukes Moultrie, the man cries that he writes stories about a Billy who stands up for glory, but “you’re not him.” Moments later, Billy sees Pat and a deputy ride into town and seeks refuge at Saval’s house. Meanwhile, Moultrie finds Pat and tells him that Billy is in town but says he does not want the reward. Although Billy is ill, Celsa, Saval’s pretty young wife, angrily demands that he leave. Seeing her emotion, Saval realizes that she and Billy had been lovers and is shattered. Celsa immediately embraces her husband, saying she only wants him, then orders Billy out. Tearfully giving Saval his gun and asking his help, Billy is standing at the open doorway when he hears Pat demand that he drop his gun. Although unarmed, Billy moves his left hand as if drawing his gun, and Pat shoots and kills him. As he approaches the dying Billy, Pat sees that his hand was empty. Shattered at what he has done, Pat compliantly goes with his wife when she guides him toward home. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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