In 1955, Gore Vidal wrote a televised play called The Death of Billy the Kid, which was adapted into a 1958 movie starring Paul Newman, The Left Handed Gun. The title trades on the mistaken assumption that the gunman was left-handed, based on a reversed "ferrotype" photograph taken of him. Vidal's play and Leslie Stevens' screenplay suggest that Billy was less of a feared outlaw and killer than a none-too-bright young man caught up in events and at the mercy of powerful folks who labeled his self-defense shootings as crimes. Paul Newman, in one of his earliest headlining roles, nails the none-too-bright part quite well.
But the artifically mannered story and labored dialogue kick the legs out from under any good work he does, and as well hamstring the rest of the less-talented cast. Leslie Steven's screenplay seems written by someone who may know Westerns but who doesn't respect them much. That's not all Stevens, as Vidal's own 1989 TV movie of his play shows the same weaknesses. Stevens was also never really able to step away from the staginess of the original story into a more cinematic atmosphere. We never get the sense we're watching a real person when we watch Billy or any of the others, despite Gun's obvious desire to show us a "real" Billy the Kid.
All of these issues make this early "revisionist" Western, a reaction against some of the stale stereotypes of the genre, a good example of what not to do when re-imagining a familiar formula.
Scott plays Pat Brennan, a solitary rancher who finds himself in the middle of an attempted stagecoach robbery and on the wrong end of the guns of robber Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his henchmen. With Pat are newlyweds Willard and Doretta Mims (John Hubbard and Maureen O'Sullivan). Willard is an officious fussbudget who married the plain-Jane Doretta for her money (credit the makeup and wardrobe artists for making O'Sullivan almost be as plain as she's supposed to be). Fearing for his life, Willard offers to tell Doretta's father she has been kidnapped so Usher and his gang can get ransom, in exchange for his life.
Brennan knows their chances of survival are slight no matter what happens, but he plays along to try to protect Doretta, since Willard's unlikely to be of help in that department. During their captivity, Usher tries to draw out Brennan, liking him a great deal more than his younger, cruder and dumber henchmen. Brennan plays along with this also.
The characters are indeed Western stereotypes -- Brennan the loner who works the land, Usher the clever but ruthless outlaw, his henchman Chink (Henry Silva) as a sociopath proud of the murders he's committed, Willard as the cowardly dandy and Doretta as a woman who finds unexpected strength in this extreme situation. But the actors sell the roles and seem to recognize that stereotypes have their roots in real people. And although Gun director Arthur Penn would develop into one of the best in his field, he wasn't when that movie was made.
Boetticher, on the other hand, working with longtime partner Scott and his producer, Harry Joe Brown, uses his standard colors to paint a much more believable and compelling picture. It doesn't hurt that he's starting with a sinewy story from Elmore Leonard than Vidal's arch puffery.
Scott, Brown and Boetticher collaborated on seven low-budget Westerns during the 1950s, and I'd find it easier to watch all seven back-to-back than sit through The Left Handed Gun a second time.