Thursday, April 18, 2019

Gun Crazy: Lovers That Go Together Like Guns and Ammunition

Peggy Cummins takes aim!
A film noir with a tragic love story involving the femme fatale and a gun-obsessed guy?

That's the unlikely premise of Gun Crazy, a 1950 "B" picture selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1998. Although it made little noise when first released, it developed a quick cult reputation. By the 1960s, Gun Crazy was being hailed by noted critics and filmmakers, such as Francois Truffaut who famously recommended that Robert Benton and David Newman watch it. That duo was working on a script that would become Bonnie and Clyde--another landmark film often compared to Gun Crazy.

The opening scene is a stunner as fourteen-year-old Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn) stands in the pouring rain on a neon-lit street and looks longingly at a handgun in a store window. He breaks the window with a brick and steals the gun and some ammunition. As he's running away, Bart falls down in a puddle and drops the gun, which slides over in front of the sheriff's feet.

John Dall as the adult Bart.
Bart's older sister tries to convince a judge that Bart is a good boy. She explains that he has always been fascinated by guns, but has killed nothing since he shot a chick at age 7 with a BB rifle. Despite her pleadings, the judge expresses concern with Bart's obsession with guns and sentences him to reform school.

When we next meet Bart (John Dall), he has returned home from serving as a marksmanship instructor in the Army. His pals take him to the carnival, where he witnesses a sharp-shooting display from Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), one of the sideshow acts. Their "meet cute" sizzles with an undercurrent of sexual attraction, so rather than describe it, here's the scene (courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel):



Bart joins the carnival at Laurie's suggestion, though the situation creates a rivalry with Packett, the carny manager and Laurie's jealous boyfriend. Packett eventually confronts Laurie and threatens to tell Bart about the man she killed in St. Louis. Her response provides the first glimpse of her true nature: "You're going to hold that over my head for the rest of my life, aren't you?" Packett fires Annie and Bart, who hit the road and get married.

Post-honeymoon problems.
They live blissfully until Bart's savings run out. When Bart suggests that he get a job at Remington for $40 a week, Laurie confides that "she wants to do a little living" and "wants things...a lot of things." Threatening to leave him, Laurie convinces Bart to participate in an armed robbery--which signals the start of their fatalistic downfall.

Gun Crazy is an impeccably crafted film that benefits from two dazzling performances, deft direction, and a razor-sharp screenplay. John Dall, whom we have profiled in this blog, was an underrated actor who deserved better roles. He certainly got a juicy one in Gun Crazy and delivers as the reluctant robber who loves only two things in life: Laurie and guns.

The more surprising portrayal comes from Peggy Cummins, who is best remembered for romantic comedies (Always a Bride) and for playing the vanilla heroine in the later Curse of the Demon (1958). She exudes sexual energy with Dall while coming across as a cold, manipulative killer. But here's the beauty of her performance: Despite Laurie's bad girl persona and many faults, Cummins convinces the audience that her character truly loves Bart. It's a blessing that director Joseph H. Lewis was unsuccessful in casting his first choice for the role: Veronica Lake.

Laurie provides a distraction for the robbery.
Lewis was a journeyman director with a resume that included some interesting "B" movies (My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night). But none of his work comes close to the innovative style employed in Gun Crazy. The film's highlight is a three-and-half minute bank robbery shot in a single take from the inside of the getaway car. The climax is almost as mesmerizing with Laurie and Bart hiding out in a fog-enshrouded swamp as they listen to their pursuers' footsteps in the water. Finally, I love how Lewis subtlety pushes the bounds of the production code by finding provocative ways to photograph Laurie (e.g., when she does a trick shot by bending down and shooting between her legs).

The lovers surrounded by fog.
As for the screenplay, it was credited to MacKinlay Kantor, whose original story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and Millard Kaufman. In the 1990s, Kaufman, who penned such classics as Bad Day at Black Rock, admitted he did not co-write Gun Crazy. He acted as a "front" for Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Personally, I think the screenplay for Gun Crazy is one of the most quotable in all film noir, as evidenced by this passage delivered by Laurie prior to her wedding: "Bart, I've never been much good, at least up until now I haven't. You aren't getting any bargain. But I have a funny feeling I want to be good. I don't know...maybe I can't. But I'm going to try. I'll try hard, Bart. I'll try."

Laurie wants to be good.
Still, it's not just the dialogue that makes the Gun Crazy screenplay so compelling. The main characters, each destined for tragedy from the beginning, are what drive the film. Bart's love for Laurie is just as obsessive as his love for guns. As a youth, he couldn't stop himself from stealing the gun in the store window. As an adult, he can't stop himself from doing whatever is required to keep Laurie. In both instances, though, Bart overcomes his obsession when it comes to killing. It's the one thing he won't do for her. In the end, that's what separates Bart from her. Having been "kicked around," Laurie is willing to do anything--even commit murder--to get the things she thinks she deserves.

Gun Crazy is required viewing for any film noir fan. Film noir expert Eddie Mueller ranks it #18 on his list of the Top 25 Noir Films and calls it "the most exciting, dynamic and influential Noir movie ever made." The British Film Institute published a 96-page book devoted solely to it. Even the original movie poster, now valued at up to $2800, has its passionate admirers. So if you haven't seen Gun Crazy, what are you waiting for?


This review is part of the Femme Fatales of Film Noir Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. We encourage you to check out the other films in this blogathon by clicking here.

14 comments:

  1. Great post Rick. GUN CRAZY is a B film gem. Visually, the film is stunning. The 3 1/2 minute bank robbery is a master class in film making. A fabulous choice! Thanks for participating!

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  2. I recall the first time I saw Gun Crazy, on TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies hosted by Elwy Yost. Elwy's introduction indicated we were in for something special, and I don't believe my jaw ever left the floor.

    So, it's #18 on Muller's list? I can make lists, in fact, I love making lists, but none of them are ranked. I just can't bring myself to that level of list making.

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  3. Like you said, this film is a Must for film noir fans – or any movie fan, really. This is what a film can be when you hire people who know what they're doing and care about telling a fascinating story.

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  4. I first found out about this movie in the book Cult Movies. For many years after that I read glowing reviews of Gun Crazy, and thought it can't be that good. Boy, was I ever wrong. This is a great movie, one of the best noirs of all time, and one of the top films of the 50s. It's far far better than Bonnie and Clyde which it's often compared to. If you haven't seen this, go find it asap. Highest possible recommendation.

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    1. Randy, like you, I was concerned that my expectations couldn't be met when I first saw GUN CRAZY. But it exceeded them!

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  5. I saw this movie for the first time last year. I had heard about it, of course, and knew it was something special, but I was simply blown away, especially by Peggy Cummins. What a dame! Great post, Rick - much fun!

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    1. She is so good in it! Too bad she didn't get better role during her career. She was originally cast as the lead in FOREVER AMBER, but Fox replaced her with Lind Darnell.

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  6. I've been suffering the movie blahs for a long while, but reading this review not only makes me want to watch this film, but rekindles my interest in the art of movie making as a whole. You're a good shot, Rick, you lit all the candles. Thanks.

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  7. Very nice! Peggy Cummins is so beautiful and so great here. And I totally agree John Dell was also very underrated and he played the character in a very complex way. I think the chemistry between Cummins and Dell really carries the entire film.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    https://thedreambookblog.wordpress.com

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  8. FANTASTIC! Anyone who hasn't seen GUN CRAZY needs to read your entry. Such a great film and its following now is quite impressive. I have nothing to add to your discussion except to say that Ms. Cummins never ceases to surprise me in this no matter how many time I see it. She is such a sweet-looking young woman, but her interior argues that, which makes it a brilliant casting choice. Finally, I completely agree that Dall is underrated. I have never seen a performance of his where I am not moved to pieces, even if the part calls for cold and calculating.

    Aurora

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  9. You do justice Rick to this important film noir classic and great femme fatale entry. It's a real trend-setter as you point out and not well enough known. I'll have to watch it again as its been years since the last viewing.

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  10. Great review! I've always thought Gun Crazy was a lot better than many of the movies it inspired, including Bonnie and Clyde. It shows what the studio system could accomplish even on B budget.

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