William Bonney (Paul Newman) is wandering New Mexico alone when he encounters a group of cattlemen, led by British rancher Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston).
The men can tell by the way he wears his gun that Billy’s no average rancher. He’s a gunfighter. Nevertheless, Tunstall takes a liking to him gives him a job.
When the time comes for Tunstall to travel to Lincoln to make arrangements for his business, Billy wants to come along. He suspects there may be danger awaiting Tunstall in the hills. But Tunstall insists on going on his own, and is soon killed at the request of rival cattleman Morton (Robert E. Griffin).
Upset over the death of the man who’d become his only close friend, Billy decides he must get revenge. He enlists the help of Tom Folliard (James Best) and Charlie Boudre (James Congdon), two young men who also worked for Tunstall. The three set out to kill Morton and his accomplices.
The Left Handed Gun is based on a teleplay by Gore Vidal (Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, “The Death of Billy the Kid,” 1955), which also starred Paul Newman in the lead role. The film was directed by Arthur Renn, from an adapted screenplay by Leslie Stevens.
The film opens strongly, Billy struggling through the open range of New Mexico, lugging a saddle along. Clearly, he’s met with some trouble. But when he meets Tunstall, things start looking up.
Tunstall briefly acts as a father figure to lonely drifter Billy, so his death and the start of the Lincoln County War have a huge impact on Billy. The young man has already committed at least one murder (in defense of his mother, at age 11); Tunstall’s death sends him back on a violent path.
Like many Westerns, this one is driven by a tale of revenge as Billy tracks down those involved in Tunstall’s death, with the help of a few friends. There’s actually a revenge story within a revenge story, as some time into his journey, Billy is targeted for revenge by a sheriff whose wedding day was interrupted by Billy’s violence.
Paul Newman offers an interesting take on the very familiar character of Billy the Kid: illiterate, impulsive, and often quite childlike, while at other times very effectively menacing. It’s an effective commentary on how the legend often differs from the living person behind it.
Those hoping for high-key, gun-slingin’ outlaw action will not find it here, but the film delivers an intriguing psychological portrait of the famed outlaw. It isn’t a straight good-vs.-evil story, as the viewer can see good and evil on both sides of the law, and can see both within Billy himself.
While not huge on action, there are still several well-staged gunfights throughout the film, and plenty of tension.
If you’re interested in the story of Billy the Kid, there’s no shortage of options for your viewing enjoyment. Several dozen films and television shows have shed light on different aspects of his life and crimes, not to mention various books, stage plays, radio programs, and more. The Left Handed Gun is a good choice for those looking to see a different, somewhat more personal interpretation of the character, and for those who like their Westerns with a touch of psychological intrigue.