Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Left Handed Gun

 There was dead silence after Dead Silence finished!! Thank goodness I said to myself as it frisbied back into its cover and the DVD player was filled with a western. This was a virtually new copy and the owner of the video store was telling me that he can't keep up with the demand for westerns from customers. And here I was thinking I was alone in renting them!
 I found this in a quiet section of the store and quite literally ripped it off the shelf. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it was sitting there, and more to the point, it was Paul Newman movie I had not previously heard of. This is made in 1958 and Newman had only been making films for four years. In any respects The Left Handed Gun has slipped into obscurity because it was released in the same year as the well known Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
 Even though it is early in Newman's career his talent is there for all to see and it is obvious why he became the fine actor he did. Here he plays Billy the Kid who rumour has it was left handed. This is what the title refers even though it was incorrect. Billy the Kid called himself William Bonny but this was only one of several aliases he used in his short life. So there we have it, my limited knowledge of 'the Kid' on display! Historical  inaccuracies aside this movie is not too bad.
 Newman plays the part well. He pulls off the Kid's youthful exceses and exuberance because he himself is so young. His two side kicks also ham it up as young men with too much boozing and not enough thinking going on. Even though it is a fifty year old movie it shows how young men haven't really changed even though the times have. There are some who have critisied the clowning around by the three, but I liked it. They are young, with easy access to firearms and liqour, and the know it allness of their age, so is it any wonder it all led to trouble?
 It starts as Newman is hired by a good natured cattle herder who is murdered by a competing one and three cronies. Newman as the Kid is angry at the death of a man who he liked and admired and vows vengence. He tries to recruit two young fellow herders to his cause. There ensues a good scene in a hotel where he debates with the two the merits of the killing those responsible. The two are reluctant and can't understand the Kid as he barely knew the kind hearted herder. He prevails and we watch them march out into the street and shoot two of the four responsible.
 From here we see the lives of all those who subsequently meet the three fall apart. No one is particularly happy with what they have done but they are such likeable boys that they are taken in and supported. We see them hamming it up through out the town and behaving like young guys should. But all the time they are plotting the death of the remaining two. The Kid is be-frieneded by Pat Garrett who was himself like the Kid when younger. He tries to temper him out of killing the last two but he is ignored as the Kid kills one at Garret's wedding after explicitly being asked not to.
 Pat Garrett is so angry he agrees to become sherrif and catch the three. Before he does though they kill the last murderer, but are then holed up and two killed and the Kid captured. He is tried and ordered to hang, but he escapes, and makes his way back to the small town who won't accept him back as they know the trouble he brings. Garrett subsequently finds and shoots him.
 Left Handed Gun is an unusual western for its time. In many ways it pre-dates Sam Pekinpah's The Wild Bunch in de-glorifying the myth of the west. Billy the Kid was a wild, un-tamed, careless killer, with no real thought for human life. He fell into the trap of believing two wrongs would make a right. In the process he alienated those around him and brought heartache and misery on their lives through his actions.
 It also pre-dates Unforgiven in that here we have a man who is obssessed with the Kid and idolises him. Only towards the end does he find out the Kid used him and couldn't have given two hoots about him personally. He comes to this sad realisation and says to the Kid, 'you aren't him, you aren't him'.
 It is also notable that the special effects of 1958 are not what they are today. In Left Handed Gun there are no graphic gunshot wounds, blood or even holes in clothing after a shooting. It may look dated but in many respects it is refreshing. Too often film makers feel the need to delve into blood and guts. To me it means a film is trying to hide behind graphicness to disguise its poor quality. Gun has none of that and relys on an actor playing the part of the shot victim. It really shows that it is not necesary to resort to a blood bath to show a shot man. Like I say I found this very refreshing.
 I really enjoyed this movie. It is a good western that has somewhat slide into obscurity against its better known counterparts. But it is a good watch and instructive of how 1950's westerns were made. Remember this was made only two years before The Magnificent Seven which is a true classic of the genre. It is also unusual in being almost an anti-western as we watch Billy the Kid slowly being shunned for his actions. This makes it a movie and ahead of its time because it was made during the heyday of the western.
 A good watch, and worth it just to see Paul Newman as a very young  and talented actor putting in a performance that presaged his later and better known roles. It is in black and white but the quality is very good. Those famous blue eyes of Newman's, even though not in colour, are sparkling, and I can see why woman over many years have swooned over him!!  Recommended.
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