"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Left-Handed Gun (Warner Bros, 1958)

Psychology 101


Billy the Kid. The first thing to say is that there has been no attempt (yet) to render a truly historically accurate William Bonney/Henry McCarty/Antrim on film. All the movies made have interpreted the legend in a way that suits them. Several have Billy surviving Fort Sumner, for example.

But that's OK. As I've said before, we don't watch Westerns for fact and we don't expect them to be historical documentaries. In any case, the hard, verifiable facts about Billy the Kid's life are few and far between. 'Interpretation' is essential. Billy the Kid movies are for fun, mostly; very occasionally they are art.

Arthur Penn’s first film, a critical and box office failure in the US but beloved by the European auteuristes, tells the Billy the Kid tale with Paul Newman as Billy and John Dehner as a very good Pat Garrett.

In fact the film was a bit different and did not observe the Warner Brothers conventions of the 1950s. There were noirish touches and artistic moments. There was even a hint of slow-motion when Ollinger (Denver Pyle) is shot. Penn immediately received a memo from Warners: no slo mo!

Billy and his two compadres (James Congdon and James Best, both good) are shown as adolescents. They swing from gloom to elation and make immature sexual jokes. It was the late 1950s and rebellious teenagers were ‘in’ - in fact James Dean had been slated to play Billy. Newman, Congdon and Best were in their early thirties so were stretching it a bit as teenagers, to say the least, but managed it pretty well. The trouble is, Newman was in full ‘method’ mode and overdoes it on several occasions, notably when Mr. Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is killed. Still, he does a decent job elsewhere.

Dehner (right), an excellent actor, is strong as Garrett, the friend who finally turns against Billy and pins on the badge. He does not shoot Billy down at Fort Sumner. There is a showdown at ‘Madero’ when Pat thinks Billy has a gun and Billy in effect commits suicide. He has lost his friends, he can’t read, he has offended Saval (Martin Garralaga) and been driven from his last and only home. It’s a pretty dark death. Warner Brothers tacked on a syrupy ending showing Pat’s wife taking him home.

It was made in black & white on a pretty low budget on Warners’ back lot and at Jack Warner’s ranch. This gives it a second-feature feel. Penn had been working with live TV and was used to techniques with several cameras. This movie started out as a live TV project written by Gore Vidal. Warners took away the editing from Penn and handed it to Folmar Blangsted. Penn was disgusted and returned to Broadway.

There’s a fair bit of Psychology 101 flying about and the symbolism is pretty crude, especially when Billy seduces Lita Milan and fireworks flare. If we are not quite sure of the meaning, Billy kicks the burnt out fireworks sadly afterwards. Lita Milan went on to marry the Venezuelan dictator Trujillo so maybe she was disappointed too.

Newman, 33, as Billy

Penn knew there was no historical accuracy about it. He was more interested in the drama and the myth. Fair enough. There is a yellow-journal ‘biographer’ (Hurd Hatfield) who gave birth to the Bob Dylan figure in the later Sam Peckinpah version Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and must surely also have been the inspiration for WW Beauchamp in Unforgiven. This highlights the lack of real truth in the myth.

Newman had to practice for hours to draw left-handed. As Billy probably wasn’t left-handed at all (the famous tintype was reversed) it wasn’t that essential but I guess ‘The Right-Handed Gun’ wouldn’t have been much of a title. The Europeans doubtless loved the three boys shooting the reflection of the moon in the water as they practice killing the bad man Moon and the single boot standing in the street when Ollinger is shot. The movie eventually won a prize for best first film, from Belgium. Wow.

It’s a flawed picture and certainly not the greatest of Billy tellings but it definitely has its points. An essential part of the canon in any case.


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