Monday, November 3, 2014


Joseph H. Lewis, 1950
Starring: Peggy Cummins, John Dall

Bart Tare, an ex-reform school student and former soldier in the Army, can’t quite get over his fascination with guns. After the war, his sister and friends have high hopes for his future. He is inherently good-hearted and non-violent until he meets Annie Laurie Starr, the sexy sharpshooter at a local carnival. She, too, is obsessed with weaponry and they begin a whirlwind romance, which gets them fired from the carnival. They marry and honeymoon, but Laurie is determined to become wealthy without working. She quickly involves them in a crime spree that escalates from gas station robbery to bigger heists and murder. A manhunt ensues, but Bart is persuaded to join her on one final robbery, which spells their doom.

Gun Crazy is undoubtedly the finest effort of the prolific, yet underrated director Joseph H. Lewis (Cry of the Hunted, The Big Combo). Written by the gifted Dalton Trumbo (I Married a Witch, The Prowler, Roman Holiday), Gun Crazy was credited to Millard Kaufman because Dalton was on the McCarthy-inspired Hollywood black list. The plot is certainly steeped in a sense of frustration and paranoia. Bart doesn't know why he is obsessed with guns. He isn't inherently violent or power-mad, and he's not a bully. Trumbo's script implies that there is just something off about Bart. He could have wound up settling down and leading a conventional life, if not for his near-fated introduction to Annie Laurie Starr.

John Dall (Rope) and Peggy Cummins (Curse of the Demon) are excellently cast and incredibly well-matched as Bart and Laurie. It's strange that neither of these actors went on to bigger fame after these two amazing performances, but there is something unconventional about both Dall and Cummins. John Dall is handsome, yet subtly disturbing. He went on to costar in Hitchcock’s Rope alongside the similar Farley Granger -- Granger had also previously starred in a film about doomed young lovers running from a crime spree with They Live By Night. Cummins is the real showstopper. In many ways, she is the ultimate femme fatale: her sexuality is consuming and animalistic, she obsessed with gaining wealth without working for it (a dark version of the American dream), and loves guns and violence.

Despite the whitewashing, sterilizing effect of the Production Code, the film is wrought with a sense of frenzied, near-hysterical sexuality. In the end, it is ultimately the sexual attraction and dependence on one another that destroys Bart and Laurie. Had they split up, they could have separately made it to safety, but instead they are hunting through a swamp like a pair of wounded animals. Though Gun Crazy influenced future crime films, it is also a key example of amour fou – insane, doomed love – and is an obvious precursor to films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, and more embarrassing later efforts like Natural Born Killers.

Though it is undeniable that there is a noir influence on Gun Crazy, Joseph Lewis manages to transcend clichés – or at least use them in his favor – to present a film relatively unique for its time. There are certainly few female characters like Annie Laurie Starr in all of ‘40s or early ‘50s cinema and it is a rare case – probably disturbing at the time – that the female protagonist is more murderous and bloodthirsty than the male. Lewis also used later noir’s documentary style to his advantage. The impressive bank heist shot, for example, was done in one take with plenty of improvisation from the actors and well-disguised cameras.

Gun Crazy comes recommended. It’s available on a basic DVD and will please fans of noir and crime drama. It’s a must-see if you like Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, and Twin Peaks lovers will also want to keep an eye out for an early performance from a teenage Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacobi), appearing here as the young Bart. And if you think '50s films are boring, Gun Crazy will likely change your mind.

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