Thursday, March 4, 2010

#48: Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

Released: January 26, 1950 (some list it as 1949, but I've never seen an actual release date from 1949)

a.k.a.: Deadly is the Female

Director: Joseph H. Lewis; Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor; Cinematography: Russell Harlan; Music: Victor Young; Producers: Frank King and Maurice King; Studio: King Brothers Productions

Cast: Peggy Cummins (Annie Laurie Starr), John Dall (Bart Tare), Berry Kroeger (Packett), Morris Carnovsky (Judge Willoughby), Anabel Shaw (Ruby Tare), Harry Lewis (Sheriff Clyde Boston), Nedrick Young (Dave Allister), Russ Tamblyn (young Bart Tare)

- "We go together, Annie. I don't know why... maybe like guns and ammunition go together."

That fact that Gun Crazy comes in at #48 only reiterates the glaringly obvious observation that I’ve pointed out a lot recently – it’s getting really, really hard to separate some of these films. From here on in, we’re dealing what I consider to be the cream of the crop of film noir. For me it, means sifting through longstanding and deserved classics and personal favorites that I feel deserve greater attention in a series like this. I might be repeating myself with this little preamble, but it’s just meant to emphasize the fact that from here on in we’re dealing with classics – if not universally recognized classics, then at least in the mind of this inveterate list-maker! Personal taste comes in huge now.

Based purely on reputation and stature in the history of noir, Gun Crazy would probably be a shoo-in for the Top 10. I remember when I first became interested in film – I mean really interested – and realized that I was being drawn to a type of movies called “film noir.” I came to noir (as I suspect many people have) through Bogart, seeing him in standards like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but as I began to investigate essentials of the noir canon, one of the first recommendations I came across was for this B classic. Having attained a strong cult following, Gun Crazy has come to be regarded as one of the cornerstones of noir. And although I would obviously go on to become a noir junkie, I have to admit to not immediately responding to Gun Crazy in this way. No doubt, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t initially understand why it is so highly regarded. At the time, my only focus was on narrative and, I might be in the extreme minority in saying this, the narrative is not seamless. I’ve since come to appreciate it more than I originally did, but the main reason for my growing admiration of the film is the impressive craftsmanship of director and female star that elevate Gun Crazy far above its B-movie origins.

The story is familiar to everyone, even those that have never heard of the movie, as it has similarities to the Bonnie and Clyde legend. Bart Tare has been fascinated by guns since a very young age, when he was caught stealing a pistol from a local store. Sentenced to reform school, Bart (John Dall) returns to his hometown as a grown man, having served a stint in the army, and is still as obsessed with guns as he has always been. When he and his childhood friends visit a traveling carnival, Bart responds to a challenge from female performer Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and outshoots her. The two have an instant attraction, which only deepens when Bart joins the carnival as a performer. When the two are married and begin struggling to make ends meet after leaving the carnival, Laurie begins to use her seductive powers to convince Bart that the couple should put their marksmen skills to better use. She argues that if they pull off a few bank and payroll jobs they will have enough cash to live a life of luxury. Bart eventually agrees, only to keep Laurie from leaving him, but soon he is in far deeper than he ever imagined.

There is certainly cheese to be found in some of the details – the prologue that begins the film is downright corny and the constant hampering on “he would never shoot a living thing” angle can at times feel like being hit over the head with a mallet. But, even with the cheese factor, they are seeds that at least make sense when they come to fruition later in the film. And they come to fruition because of the powerhouse performance of Peggy Cummins as Laurie. Dall, for me, is a stand-in, and could have been swapped out for another actor without losing much. He does convey an innocence that is becoming of Bart, but it never feels like something that someone else could not have done. Cummins is simply irreplaceable. Laurie has a combination of passion and bloodthirstiness that might be unmatched in all of noir. Much has been written about the sexuality of the relationship between Bart and Laurie, so I won’t parrot what others have come up with. What struck me in watching the film this time around is the lack of much on-screen romance between the two. Laurie gets off purely on the thrill and violence.

Technically, aspects of the film are equally as impressive. The heist sequences have long been celebrated and rightfully so. The famed sequence where they film a bank heist entirely from the backseat of the getaway car is brilliant. It is this kind of simple inventiveness that allows the movie leave its B origins in the dust. That entire scene has a marvelous unscripted, off the cuff feel, as Bart and Laurie casually converse as they drive up to the bank, talking as nonchalantly as if they were discussing the weather. The planned final robbery of the meat packing plant is also wonderfully filmed. Really, the action sequences in general are outstanding.

I might rate this one lower than many readers, but there is no question that it is not just an essential noir, but an essential film in American cinema. It is one that I make sure to revisit from time to time in order to appreciate how simply a great movie can be crafted.


  1. The bank robbery scene shot in one take is amazing. Lewis on a miniscule budget did more with the camera than so many of today’s directors attempt to do with all their special effects. It is too bad he was never able to graduate to the ‘A’ list. “Gun Crazy” is certainly one of the true ‘B” classics and Cummins ranks up there as one of the most vile femme fatales. This is one I have been planning to revisit and write about soon myself. Another great one Dave.

  2. One thinks of BONNIE AND CLYDE here, but this Lewis low budget work does indeed stand as a classic of its kind. The story, expertly paced has a contemporary allure, and the two leads are among noir's most memorable pairings. There no question that GUN CRAZY boasts one of the most romantic conclusions in movie history. Your assertion that the heist scene is a classic of it's kind is dead-on, and the entire essay here is top-rank.

  3. One of my all-time favorite movies. The corny bits you mention are essential parts of its character, I think, and its inexplicable oddness. It is one of the great American films. A great triple feature is to watch They Live By Night, then Gun Crazy, then watch Rope, which features Granger and Dall as Ivy league killers (Dall, it goes without saying, plays quite a different character there, and has no problem with killing!).

  4. I watched it recently and it looked like a real noir, if you what I mean: all the requisite elements were there. However, I didn't connect emotionally with the characters, which is quite unusual for me. Maybe it was because, as you write, the leading man was quite insipid. He looked a little bit more alive in the carnival shooting sequence, but that was about it. The girl was awesome, right.

  5. John - Agreed... Lewis did some amazing stuff with the limited resources he always had to work with. He'll be heard from again!

    Sam - Yes, that heist scene never fails to amaze me. So simple, but works so perfectly. I love how casual everything feels.

    Doniphon - I thought that I remembered you saying that this is one of your favorites. I obviously really like it to rate it this high, even if I have minor quibbles.

    Quirky Character - Yes, Cummins shines here. Her performance alone makes it a must-see.

  6. Great movie. I guess you consider The Big Combo the better film. I always flip flop on which I prefer more. Its a shame Joseph H. Lewis never was able to make A pictures. It doesn't mean he could of topped his two classics but he should of been given a chance. Cummins is the standout but I like Dall as well. He plays the male wimp perfectly in my eyes. I agree with Doniphon that the corniness is essential to the allure of the movie. Besides the film never really slips into camp and that is an important factor for me. I love Berry Kroegar's small role as well. His jealousy and pathetic nature signals our entrance into the unique world of noir. Great film and wonderful review. Dave after this list is complete you should tackle neo-noir. Now that would be a really tough task......M.Roca

  7. That's a coincidence, I was doing an analysis on Bonnie and Clyde the other day (school assignment) and I found a nice series of books about the cinematic genres. In the crime volume, which was divided into: gangster stuff, poliziotteschi, film noir, etc. there was a picture of this particular movie and it happens to be the first one, aside from the poster, you posted on this essay! Seeing it for the first time, I found the picture very striking (I don't know why, but it is) and I promptly added it in my "to watch list" without having read a word about it. I want to see this even more now!

  8. Keep in mind that the film's harping on Bart's inability to kill is the central question of Gun Crazy: if this guy can shoot, yet not kill, then what good is he? In a generation of hardened killers all living the straight life, is he even still a man? I think ironically the answer is no.

    I'd also throw in that the movie's B-status is one of the reasons why the capers are so marvelously inventive.

    Good stuff as usual. I don't comment much, but I'm reading. :-)

  9. Thanks for following the countdown, Mark, and for the comment here. I think you're right about that being the central issue, I just thought that the early section felt a little awkward, that's all. I didn't mean to imply that it didn't work, especially when put into context by what takes place the rest of the way.

  10. Great movie in all aspects, augmented by Ms. Cummins wearing a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry's cowboy outfit. She looks very sexy wearing these Cowboy star's duds !

  11. I think Joseph H. Lewis is one of the best directors and I have been watching his movies and I think it is a good sequence of masterpieces and Peggy Cummins did an amazing job in the movie. Absolutely.