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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Joseph H. Lewis’ ‘Gun Crazy’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Joseph H. Lewis' 'Gun Crazy'

From now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Gun Crazy”
Dir: Joseph H. Lewis
Criticwire Average: —

Pauline Kael once said Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy” (1950) “has a fascinating crumminess,” which is an apt description for a film that has so much lurid material on its brain — guns, sex, robbery, murder, youthful corruption — but that never exploits it for more than it’s worth. It’s a film about two people brought together by their shared love of guns, and who stay together through a life of crime because they’re made for each other “like guns and ammunition,” in the words of the boyish Bart Tare (John Dall), and yet the film has a sensitive core that can’t be masked by its prurient surface. It’s a B-film with a heart of gold, even if that heart was probably stolen.

As a teenager, Bart Tare robs a hardware store to steal a gun and is sent to reform school. Though His friends and older sister testify that Bart would never kill a living creature after being emotionally scarred by shooting a young chick with his BB gun, the Judge still forces him to leave his friends and family. Bart returns  home after school and a stint in the Army and finds himself at a traveling carnival where he meets sharpshooter Annie “Laurie” Starr (Peggy Cummins). After defeating Laurie in a shooting contest, she gets him a job at the carnival, but it’s not long after that they both get fired after their mutual attraction infuriates the carnival boss (Berry Kroeger) who wants Laurie for himself. The two get married, but when they run out of money, they turn to a life of crime only for Bart to realize that his new wife has a predilection for violence that he doesn’t share.

Lewis and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo establish a pulpy erotic tone in “Gun Crazy” that not only drives the action but also maintains a depraved milieu. The two have a lot of fun with the conveniently Freudian imagery of gun as phallus, but the emotional and physical intimacy between Bart and Laurie is curiously sparked by weaponry. The scene when Bart meets Laurie at the carnival as she’s demonstrating her sharpshooter skills is so sexually charged it might as well be foreplay. Dall projects a boyish charm that combines a “Golly!” sensibility with a devilish delight. Peggy Cummins conveys so much manic sexual energy as she robs banks and murders secretaries that it’s frighteningly compelling (though it peaks during the film’s famous single-take bank robbery which culminates in a close-up of her gleefully aroused face.) There’s a conflation of violence and sex in “Gun Crazy” that Arthur Penn would later employ in the similar and more successful “Bonnie and Clyde” seventeen years later, but “Gun Crazy” takes little pleasure in its violent eroticism and instead starkly depicts it as a way of life for those crazy kids. It brings them excitement, adventure, and even fleeting happiness, but it also directly contributes to their eventual downfall.

Though “Gun Crazy” has a “crummy” edge, it’s a sensitive film — sensitive about violence, love, and the way potentially bad habits can lead to dangerous choices. Bart and Laurie’s love may be heightened by their own compulsions, but Lewis treats their intimacy delicately and shoots them in tight close-ups that capture their genuine affection towards each other. Lewis also captures Bart’s warmth quite well evidenced by a heartbreaking flashback of a young Bart shooting a chick with his BB gun unaware of the terrible guilty feeling that follows after taking a life. Trumbo’s script characterizes Bart and Laurie as outsiders, people born with alienating fascinations that separates them from the rest of society, but it never fully condemns them either. It just treats them like people who do what they do.

But alas, “Gun Crazy” is still a noir film and thus it still retains a fatalistic attitude towards Bart and Laurie’s crime spree. “Gun Crazy” has no illusions about how their story is going to end. Of course there’s talk of “leaving the country” and “one last big score,” but in the end, they’re shot dead by the police in a foggy thicket way up in the mountains, a far cry away from paradise. Yet that doesn’t rob the climax of its potency. Cinematographer Russell Harlan provides an eerie energy to the last scene with the fog and shadows clashing against each other to create a ghostly atmosphere within the frame, and it dovetails nicely with Dall and Cummins’ acting. They both convey a frightened desperation as they’re aware that they only have a few moments left together. Laurie tries to shoot her way out, but Bart kills her before she has the chance, which prompts the sheriff and his old childhood friend Clyde (Harry Lewis) to kill him as well. Bart and Laurie, our two fascinatingly crummy heroes, wanted to finish it “on the level,” but couldn’t even live long enough to muster that. It’s a muted “blaze of glory” devoid of any fun thrills, just blunt tragedy.

More thoughts from the web:

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“Gun Crazy” is altogether different from the blood-spattered pop-culture happening that Arthur Penn would ultimately make from the script. It’s a strangely inward, muted depiction of a pair of criminals who take little pleasure in their crimes. Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr are sharpshooters who meet at a carnival. Bart is sketched out with psychological depth; his backstory — as an orphan for whom guns play a symbolic role that diverges from his aversion to violence — takes the first ten minutes of the film. Annie Laurie, who eggs him on to a life of crime to satisfy her material cravings, remains opaque throughout the film, to him, to viewers, and to herself. The director, Joseph H. Lewis, is a masterful stylist as well as a daring innovator. For instance, he films one bank robbery from inside a car, on location, with portable sound equipment, in a single take that runs three and a half minutes. (He discusses it in detail in a superb interview in Peter Bogdanovich’s book “Who the Devil Made It.”) His artistic inventions extend to the direction of actors: his stars, John Dall and Peggy Cummins, aren’t the last word in charisma, but, by directing them to speak in virtual whispers, he conjures an ambivalent intimacy that draws viewers uneasily close to a world of depravity. Lewis ingeniously plays down the violence but, by playing up Bart’s sensitivity to violence, brings the world of cinematic crime menacingly close to most viewers’ real-world aversions. Read more.

Sam Adams, City Paper

Gun Crazy” (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ lovers-on-the-run tale…mixes noir fatalism with pulp-novel thrills. First shown as a baby-faced teen smashing a store window to procure a much-desired firearm, John Dall emerges from an unseen stint in reform school and the military as a slope-shouldered string bean, obsessed with guns but unable even to contemplate turning them on a living creature. He more than meets his match in hard-bitten Peggy Cummins, a sideshow trick-shot artist who, unbeknownst to him, already has one murder under her gun belt, and few compunctions about committing another. The codes of the time prevented Lewis from being explicit about the extent to which their fast-blooming romance is fueled by their mutual love of weaponry (Arthur Penn would rip off the covers in “Bonnie and Clyde,” which owes “Gun Crazy” a substantial debt), but when Cummins’ six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it’s clear what really fills their collective tank. Auteurists emphasize the movie’s showpiece scene, a one-shot robbery that brings a note of realism to a movie that otherwise doesn’t show much interest in it. Read more.

Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club

All noir heroes have unhealthy compulsions and a nose for trouble, but none are as victimized by their impulses as John Dall in 1949’s spectacularly lurid B-movie “Gun Crazy.” Dall is cinema’s most impassioned gun fetishist; his need to possess (and suggestively fondle) the weapon runs against his gentle nature, which forbids him from ever using it for its intended purpose. This makes him easy prey for Peggy Cummins, an expert marksman and out-of-control bad girl who seduces him in a memorable sideshow shooting contest that’s unseemly in its implied eroticism. The film’s original title, “Deadly Is The Female,” could apply to any number of code-flouting noirs, but Cummins deserves the title: Her lusty cries for action are a clarion call that Dall can’t resist, even though he knows they’ll lead him to damnation. Read more.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

One of the most distinguished works of art to emerge from the B movie swamp, Joseph H. Lewis;s 1949 film is a proto-“Bonnie and Clyde” tale of an outlaw couple on the run. Lewis’ long takes and sure command of film noir staples (shadows, fog, rain-soaked streets) make this a stunning technical achievement, but it’s something more — a gangster film that explores the limits of the form with feeling and responsibility. Read more.

Sheila O’Malley, SheilaOMalley.com

Peggy Cummins makes an indelible impression as Annie Laurie. It is one of my favorite performances of all time. The female in film noir is often the “other,” the mysterious force-of-nature that strolls into a man’s life and knocks over all his chess pieces. She is often ruthless. Her blood pressure doesn’t rise like other humans: she remains calm and in control. Her surface may be hot and compelling (Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde bangs and anklet in “Double Indemnity”), but her heart remains uninvolved, as she calculates her way towards getting what she wants. Annie Laurie has those elements, but she adds to it a hot-blooded subtext. While she does use Barton in order to free herself from the circus, you also get the sense that she needs him, she can’t breathe without him. It makes for a truly disturbing picture, because you get caught up in their weird violent little belljar, and you start to root for the both of them, even though they are wreaking havoc. It is their bond that cannot be denied. Read more.

Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

The lovers’ crime spree is midway between “You Only Live Once” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” Joseph H. Lewis charts it all with a perverse artisan’s dynamic glee, one wicked jolt after another. Pulp Freudianism is dispensed humorously, Dall polishes a pistol’s barrel while Cummins slides on her black stockings under a white bathrobe, the office matron who censures the heroine for donning slacks is last seen taking a blast to the face. Lewis’ freshness of invention is continuous, and continuously startling: In the most celebrated sequence, the camera rides in the back of the robbers’ car, hops over to the passenger’s seat to watch a nervous flirtation with a cop while a stickup unfolds inside a bank, then dollies in as they drive off for a close-up of Cummins’ pale, euphoric visage — three and a half unbroken minutes that left their mark on “À Bout de Souffle” and “Bande à Part.” Read more.

Josh Larsen, Larsen On Film

To give you an idea of the flamboyant touch “Gun Crazy” has, it’s worth noting that Barton and Annie continue to wear the Western outfits from the carnival long after they’ve left the show. In fact, the movie’s showcase sequence – a three-and-a-half-minute single take of a bank robbery, in which the camera never leaves the back seat of their getaway vehicle – features Annie taking out a cop while in Wild West getup. And so “Gun Crazy” is never dull, though it is problematic. What are we to make of its attitude toward firearms, not to mention its depiction of Annie as heartless temptress? (It was originally titled “Deadly is the Female.”) I’m not sure of the answers, or how much it matters. “Gun Crazy” is a burst of movie id all its own, a confluence of sex, sexism and violence that ends with its antiheroine and her victim trapped in a steamy swamp. Don’t play with guns, kids. You’re liable to get shot. Read more.

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