The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Newman once distinguished himself, from Dean by citing the latter’s “lost little boy’s point of view,” but that is precisely Newman’s interpretation of Billy the Kid… An uneducated, confused, neurotic adolescent, his Billy has more in common with a fifties delinquent than with any traditional Western hero such as the heroic, romantic outlaw played by Robert Taylor in 1941’s “Billy the Kid.”

The anti-heroic, anti-romantic concept is at the heart of all of Newman’s films set in the West… The antithesis of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, he never plays conventional cowboys or lawmen, choosing instead notorious types (Butch Cassidy, Judge Roy Bean), outcasts (Juan Carrasco in “The Outrage,” John Russell in “Hombre”) or modern anti-heroic Westerners (Bannon in “Hud,” Jim Kane in “Pocket Money”)—deviants from normal Western society, with their own standards of justice and morality…

The psychology of the outcast is also a preoccupation of director Arthur Penn, who made his film debut with “The Left-Handed Gun,” and who continued portraying outsiders in films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Little Big Man.” From the opening scene, in which Billy emerges from the horizon, a struggling, lone wanderer, his separateness from others is constantly stressed… Like other Newman protagonists, he’s a man (or boy) drawn into himself, an island of introversion largely separated from humanity…

Penn is also known for his skill at conveying character and psychological states through physical gestures and movement, and here too he is well-allied with Newman (and with the Method). Billy is fairly inarticulate, bewildered, sometimes almost half-intelligent, in his speech, and animal-like in his movements (in this he resembles Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”). Emotionally frustrated, inwardly directed, struggling to release his feelings, Billy “speaks” in terms of heightened physical action—intense facial expressions, clear and explicit gestures, extensive body movements—culminating in violence… Unlike Rocky, who learns to channel his instinct for violence into an acceptable outlet, Billy can only kill…

Characters like Rocky and Hud rebel because of father-hatred, but Billy becomes violent because he is deprived of a father… As a child, he was abandoned by his father and raised by his mother, whom he worshiped—so much that at age eleven he killed a man for having insulted her… Now alone, defenseless, a “lost little boy,” he is befriended by the kindly Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston), whom he comes to admire… When Tunstall is killed, Billy can respond only with wordless anguish…

This is one of Newman’s most inspired moments, as he progresses from a tortured expression—his head spiraling toward the ground in pain—to thoughtful tranquility, and finally to vengeful anger…

Without considering morality or the consequences, he decides that he must become the law and kill the four men responsible—repeating his childhood revenge—and thus he turns into a notorious outlaw…

“The Left Handed Gun” is only occasionally pretentious and self-conscious; more often it is exciting, vibrant, even exuberant… Billy’s instinctive sense, released in violence, also finds a stream flowing from eruptions of adolescent joy… One scene is worth citing, because it represents a rare instance of improvisation in Newman’s work… Shortly after Tunstall’s death, Billy learns the names of the men he will go after, and his intense mourning turns to agreeably rough jubilation: he marches around with a broom, singing, laughing, joking… Penn calls it “ecstatic grief.”

Penn’s “The Left Hunded Gun” remains one of Newman’s best films, and it marked a major development in his acting abilities, indicating gifts for improvisation and superb physical performing… The motion picture is also a rare instance of the perfect director-actor confluence, and it’s unfortunate that Penn and Newman have never worked together since…