The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)

The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid) created on 5 September, 2010 @ 18:56 [Autosave]
Title The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)

For anyone who reads this and doesn’t know me or the terminology for the blog, let me note that I’m David Cremean, Past-President of the Western Literature Association (2009), and “Paha Sapa” is Lakota Sioux for “Black Hills,” where I teach and live, in Spearfish, just off of I-90, near Deadwood and a scant 10 miles from the eastern portion of Wyoming.

Well, it’s only been a bit over a year-and-a-half since I created this blog, and I’m finally using it for the first time. I doubt the world was any poorer for my non-blogging or will become any richer now that I’m trying to kick start it like a stubborn horse, but here it is. Last night I rewatched (on Netflix direct feed) this post’s title, Director Arthur Penn’s “classic Western” for the first time since, well, childhood or adolescence, and I’m now 52.

Penn is, of course, most famous for Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, and as far as I can tell is completely unrelated to Shaun Penn or the other two Penn brothers. Well, in keeping with both of those films, this one is another 3 word title if we count the hyphenated term as a single word: The Left-Handed Gun (1958). It was Penn’s first film, and that fact shows all too well. It was also one of Newman’s earliest roles, and I think that shows a bit too well, too, though as always, Newman has his moments. The best-acted part is John Dehner’s Pat Garrett, though he too is given some awful lines and scenes.

So, as for Penn here: this black and white film, based on some type of script originally written by Gore Vidal and rewritten by Leslie Stephens, is pretty much an incoherent mess with little plausibility or believable suggestion of cause and effect and no apparent themes. It doesn’t even have a mood. Perhaps in the existential and Beat-laden late-1950s that incoherence is the point, though I doubt it. LHG also probably sticks too close to history in some ways (though not close enough in others; see below), or at least fails to use the historical or even the legendary aspects very well. Of course, with a director’s first film in particular, it’s hard to say what a studio may have done to destroy it all. Nevertheless, the outlaws themselves are made far too “good” and thus one-dimensional in Penn’s version.

Newman was in his early 30s when he played this role, supposedly a late teen-, earlier one-score-aged character. This problem has of course been a common one for so many Hollywood films (including many a Western, perhaps most egregiously in recent memory All the Pretty Horses). Of course, Yosemite Sam Peckinpah’s Billy, Kris Kristofferson, created a similar stretch, but in Peckinpah’s case it works because being older is intentionally a major part of the theme and the film’s world: KK’s Billy is not supposed to be “historical” or young. And Penn was reined in a great deal by the restrictions of his time: so many laughably bloodless shooting deaths here. As well, Newman seems too busy trying to do his best Montgomery Clift/Marlon Brando/James Dean (for my money, the greatest of these is Clift, a major influence on the other two). Newman also often overracts, though in this film he’s hardly the only one who does.

Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid obviously owes a great deal to this film and clearly references it at many a turn. Granted, both follow a lot of the historical/legendary facts about “The Kid,” but Peckinpah makes them fit his film. Typical of the Wild Buncher–see also Major Dundee–confusion surrounded his version (there are 3 different film cuts of it still available). Peckinpah’s film, at least in “his” preferred version, is easily the better of these two and to my mind easily the best of the many BTK films: it is at once more focused and more profound. Both films are full of cruciformic imagery of surrendering or dying men (though at least as I recall, it’s only with Billy in Peckinpah’s, and in Penn’s it is each of the 3 main outlaws: Billy, Charlie Boudre, and Tom Folliard).

One wonders if Cormac McCarthy’s kid/man’s demise in the Dantean “jakes,” the end-game in _Blood Meridian_, is an ironic reference to Billy’s use of the outhouse in Peckinpah’s film (in LHG, it is simply the semi-veiled Billy’s need for a trip “outside” that covers anything scatalogically). Even Bob Dylan’s mysterious (and alas, badly acted role) “Alias” in Peckinpah’s film has a precedent in LHG: Hurd Hatfield playing an odd and mysterious hero-worshipping southerner, Moultrie. (Hatfield is most famous as the star of the film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

In addition to Dylan’s fine soundtrack for the Peckinpah film–though Peckinpah had few kind words for Dylan (of course, like John Ford, he rarely had many kind words for anyone). Riding along the same trail, the score for Peckinpah’s film involves the hymnic Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” used in the film’s single most poignant, memorable, greatest scene, the death of the gutshot Slim Pickens character (one of Garrett’s allies) in the arms of his wife, played by the equally legendary Kay Jurado, as he moves down by the river for a variety of suggestive/symbolic reasons. One of these reasons is that he will never sail in let alone finish his boat (referenced by Gene Hackman’s Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, who never gets to finish his house, which produces William Munny’s greatest line of all, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it”).

Finally worth noting is that Billy the Kid was, of course, apparently right-, not left-, handed, since the famous photograph of The Kid holding a rifle in his right hand and wearing his revolver on his left resulted from a reversal of the negative. This photograph is actually part of Penn’s film and portrayed incorrectly, when at Garrett’s wedding Billy is photographed holding a rifle in his right hand and wearing his revolver on his left side.

Trivial Pursuit elements (along the lines of iMdb): At least one song I’m aware of and own on a vinyl album directly mentions the Peckinpah movie, is built around it in fact: the late, great folk-singer John Stewart’s “Take Me to Durango” (Mexico, where SP’s version was filmed): “I could play that part just fine you know,” “I never saw old Peckinpah,” “it’ll be the best Billy the Kid of ’em all,” and “shot him down in (New) Mexico,” among other lines. . . . Denver Pyle (as the ill-fated Ollinger, a part that in Peckinpah’s film is utterly inhabited by RG Armstrong) and James Best as Billy’s sidekick Tom Folliard later became Pa Duke and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coletrain, respectively, in _The Dukes of Hazzard_, the ridiculous but for a couple years of its run fun hit television show with plenty of Western elements built into it. . . . And speaking of Cormac McCarthy, likely one of his reasons for interest in “the kid” is that Henry McCarty (not William Bonney) was apparently Billy the Kid’s real name. This kicks up even more interesting serendipitous dust, at least forme: as I learned only 4-5 years ago, the Cremean family name descended from McCruimmen/O’Cruimmen/ McCrimmin/etc., which comes out of Counties Cork and Kerry in Ireland–and was a sept of the McCarthy Clan (also out of Cork and Kerry) and uses the McCarthy/McCarty coat of arms. McCarthy often seems to play with elements of his heritage, such as this. Adding to the serendipity: Hurd Hatfield from LHG died in either Rathcormac or Monkstown, County Cork, Ireland.

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One Response to “The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)”

  1. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    Given the number of outlaws in westerns that meet their destiny in an outhouse, you’d think more outlaws would invest in a chamberpot. I didn’t realize that the outhouse-based demise came from the Billy the Kid legend. Given a choice, I do think I’d prefer to be shot while hanging a picture on the wall than in the jakes.

    I also didn’t know about the accidentally reversed photograph of Billy. Was that reversal unknown until recently? Should the makers of The Lefhand Gun have known about that error?

    There’s a nice Billy the Kid song by Joe Ely (I think), with a chorus along the lines of: “Me and Billy the Kid–we never got along.” I don’t think he references the Peckinpah film though.


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