Billy the Kid Week 2010: Review of The Left Handed Gun (1958)

Billy the Kid Week

Welcome to Day 2 of Billy the Kid Week 2010. I’ll be reviewing Billy the Kid movies all week. Yesterday I reviewed the 1943 Howard Hughes movie, The Outlaw starring Jane Russell. Today, I’m reviewing The Left Handed Gun starring Paul Newman.

The Left Handed Gun poster

In 1955 Gore Vidal wrote a teleplay for The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse called The Death of Billy the Kid.  It starred Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.  Several years later Vidal’s teleplay would be used as the basis for Leslie Stevens’ screenplay for The Left Handed Gun.  Originally, James Dean was cast to play Billy the Kid for this movie but he died in 1955 and the studio cast Paul Newman as Dean’s replacement.

Many critics of this movie believe star Paul Newman was miscast.  Newman, at the time, was 33 years old and seen as too old to play the teenage Billy the Kid.

I originally watched this movie back in the late ’90s when I was trying to watch as many movies that had Billy the Kid in it as I could find.  I thought, “Paul Newman as Billy? This should be pretty good.” However, I was wrong.  You can tell that this screenplay was written for a younger actor.  Dean probably would have been able to pull off the “troubled teenager” bit a little more convincingly than the mid-30 year old Newman.  But even with a more convincing lead, this movie is just boring.  Newman’s Billy seems like a petulant child and the events transpiring barely registered in my consciousness.  By the time the movie was over (what felt like 6 hours later) I had forgotten most of the story.  Plus, Billy’s “love interest” shows up half way through the movie and all of sudden they are in love.  It’s weird.  She’s played by Lita Milan, and she’s pretty, but she has a very distracting haircut; the infamous femme-mullet.  The whole movie feels like a jumbled collection of boring scenes capped off with a very unsatisfying ending.

Billy the Kid tintype

Per the movie’s title, for many years Billy the Kid was believed to be left handed.  The mistake occurred because the one known/verified photograph of Billy the Kid (above) was a ferrotype (or, tintype) which portrays a mirrored image of the subject.  Unfortunately, publishers over the years reproduced this photo in numerous books “as is” and didn’t document the fact that we are looking at the mirror image of Billy the Kid.  This led to the mistaken belief by many people that Billy was left handed (as that’s where his gun is holstered in the photo).  Extensive expert photo analysis has concluded that Billy wasn’t left handed and this image is in fact reversed.

Anyway, back to the movie.  This didn’t help the story or my enjoyment of the picture, but there are two future Dukes of Hazard cast members in this movie.  The first is in this picture below:

Newman and Best

Can you recognize the actor on the left?  That’s Roscoe P Coltrane himself, Mr James Best.  The other actor in this movie is Denver Pyle (Uncle Jesse).  Denver plays a smaller part, Bob Ollinger, one of the sheriffs Billy kills in the middle of the movie.  You hardly see Denver, as he’s only in a few scenes, but Best is in the majority of the movie as he’s one of Billy’s best friends. Like I said, this knowledge didn’t help my enjoyment of the movie, but it’s interesting for what it is.

Vidal's Billy the Kid

Gore Vidal was not happy with how this movie turned out (I can’t blame him) so in 1989, he updated his own teleplay and created the TV movie Billy the Kid starring a young Val Kilmer as William Bonney (above).  It was broacast on TNT the day after my 15th birthday, May 10, 1989.  I didn’t watch it that night, but I recorded it on videotape and watched it later.  It was less boring than The Left Handed Gun, but it explored many of the same “troubled teen” aspects that the previous movie did.  Obviously I liked this update better, but it still was a bit too heavy on the teen psychoanalysis and light on the action.  Like The OC, but in the Old West.  Unfortunately, Vidal’s TV movie has not been released on DVD.

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3 Responses to “Billy the Kid Week 2010: Review of The Left Handed Gun (1958)”

  1. After watching through a bunch of Twilight Zone episodes I’m becoming a pretty big fan of James Best.

    I haven’t seen either of these flicks, and I’m surprised that the Paul Newman version didn’t work, though I’m kind of curious if he played Billy as an angry drunk. After watching through a bunch of early Newman flicks recently I came to the conclusion that he made a career out of playing surly drunks…

  2. Shawn, Newman played Billy not so much drunk, but he was angry a lot.

  3. danyulengelke Says:

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Arthur Penn Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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