I have been a fan of film noir for years, but I have never seen Gun Crazy before. It was always among the titles I saw on 'best of' lists, but I never got around to see it. Until last night when the Auckland Film Society hosted a screening at the Academy.
Bart (John Dall) is obsessed with guns. He is so fixated that a court sentenced him to reform school after he broke into a gun shop as a youth. As an adult, he meets Laurie (Peggy Cummins), a circus sharpshooter who shares his love guns. Unlike Bart, Laurie's love of guns in based on what they can give her, rather than the weapons themselves. And unlike her lover, Laurie has no problem using them on people.
Director Joseph H. Lewis is one of classic Hollywood's masters of economic story-telling. If there was a Mt Rushmore to quickie filmmakers of the Forties and Fifties, he would be on it, alongside other talents like Edgar Ulmer (Detour) and Bud Boetticher (Ride Lonesome). Gun Crazy is easily the best example of his talents, as well as great movie in its own right.
At only 87 minutes, Gun Crazy packs more incident and character development than most big budget features. With only limited resources, Lewis shoots every scene to maximize the focus on the central couple - all extraneous characters and details are minimised. Strong, dramatic compositions, kinetic montage and judicious use of long takes and off-screen action create a vibrant, fast-moving diegesis for our impatient anti-heroes to navigate. As Bart and Laurie's infatuation blurs into a life of crime, Lewis's frenetic, punchy style becomes more vivid, mirroring the intoxicating highs of their escapades.
The film is filled with amazing scenes: the couple's fire-powered 'meet cute' at the circus; the famous one-take bank robbery scene (shot from inside the getaway car); and the wonderfully downbeat climax, set in fog-drenched swamp. What makes them even better is that nothing in the movie feels bravura or extraneous - all of Lewis's directorial touches are completely functional and in service to the narrative.
Speaking of the script, Lewis really lucked out with this one. The film was produced by the King Brothers, two indie producers who had struck gold with another crime picture, 1945's Dillinger (starring Laurence Tierney). That movie had been a big hit, and the Kings decided to try and keep moving toward respectability. They found a short story by MacKinlay Kantor. When his attempt at a feature script turned out to be un-filmable (I read one story which said his draft came in around 300 pages), the Kings went hunting for someone to re-write. Around this time, top notch screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He needed money, and so for a bargain the Kings got the services of one of Hollywood's best talents. Because of the blacklist, Trumbo's work had to go un-credited, and so fellow screenwriter Millard Kaufman lent his name to the credits (it's still on the print I saw).
John Dall is most well known today for his performances in this picture and in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. As Bart, he is incredibly sympathetic. A fundamentally decent man, Bart is a classic noir fall guy who is brought down by his weakness for firearms and that classic noir staple, a bad woman. Riding the line between classic leading man and character actor, Dall is always interesting to watch, and makes Bart far more complicated and human than just a trick shooter with a gun fetish.
Peggy Cummins had originally been brought over to America by 20th Century Fox, where her talents were wasted. Her greatest ignominy was to be fired from the title role of Forever Amber, a picture based off a big best seller (later made by film noir specialist Otto Preminger). Gun Crazy followed, and finally gave her a proper showcase. As Bart's other half, Cummins is absolutely hypnotising. From the moment she sashays into frame brandishing her pistols, the movie becomes charged with electricity. When she and Dall share the screen, the erotic tension is palatable. Considering the censorship of the time it is unbelievable just how strong their chemistry is. These two are chained to each other, doomed to share the same fate, and Dall and Cummins sell their insane passion.
Another part of why their dynamic is so interesting is how they complement each other. Where one is a cool head, the other is spontaneous. While she is a manipulator and has no problem shooting people, Laurie is more materialistic and spontaneous than Bart, who is responsible for planning their various schemes. On the other hand, Laurie is the more sexually mature, using her wiles to ensnare Bart, as well as giving him the spine to go through the crime spree. It's a mark of good screenwriting and acting that the killer couple feel totally real and believable - they function as an emotional unit, which makes them more relatable and sympathetic (although Laurie strays the furthest toward being a flat-out villain, she never crosses over into a two-dimensional caricature).
It is a pity that neither Dall nor Cummins ever found that much success following this movie. As a 'B' picture, the movie was overlooked at the time, and so the performances of its leads did not receive the attention they deserved - at least, not until decades later.
One of the great things about Gun Crazy is not just its quality, but how exciting it is as a viewing experience. If I was to recommend a noir to a neophyte, I might pick Gun Crazy. it moves well, has a strong sense of humour and is packed with plenty of action. And Lewis stages the expected set pieces with enough imagination to prevent any of them (bank robberies, car chases) from feeling pedestrian.
Another thing I love about Gun Crazy is how un-laboured it is in depicting the central characters and the psycho-sexual dimension to their relationship. I could see a modern version of this story dragging out for two hours. Within the economic and social constraints of its production and release, Gun Crazy manages to convey everything we need to know, while leaving at least a little ambiguity to Bart and Laurie's relationship and motivations for staying together (is their passion based on genuine love, or the excitement of their endeavours?). Any aspiring filmmakers would do to take a few notes from this picture about narrative economy.
One of the great film noir, Gun Crazy is definitely worth a look.
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Tales of Hoffman