Noirvember: Gun Crazy
“You’ll never make big money. You’re a two-bit guy. No guts, nothing! I want action!”
One of the reasons I’ve tried to stay away from well-known films during this month’s discussion of noir — especially ones as well-known as Gun Crazy — is that, well, I’m not the first horse in this rodeo, folks. Critics a lot more perceptive than I’ll ever be were dissecting and analyzing films from the shadowy age of American crime dramas for close to three decades before I was even born. And with a movie like this, it’s true that it took a while for the B-movie revisionists to get around to noticing its greatness, but it’s also true that everyone who did see it, critics and filmmakers alike, found it hugely influential. What more can I possibly add to the discussion that hasn’t been said already?
On the other hand, who doesn’t want to take on the canon every now and then? The fact is, the reason more people have written about Gun Crazy than they have Fear in the Night is that it’s a much better movie, and great movies give you more things to talk about, more avenues to explore than merely above-average ones. Not many people would have cared if François Truffaut had written a 400-page book about Gene Nelson. So, in the spirit of upping my game, please join me as I take a look at one of the most beautiful and twisted of all films noir, as well as a personal favorite of mine.
Originally released under the title Deadly is the Female, Gun Crazy was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, a perennially undervalued undercard director who would, five years later, helm The Big Combo, another of my all-time greats in the crime drama genre. His script came from then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, working off an article by MacKinlay Kantor in the Saturday Evening Post, and the two of them together were dynamite, with Lewis finding just the right actors and images to deliver what seems like a New Wave message from the future built around Trumbo’s heavy-breathing screenplay. (To be fair, the same pair was responsible for the loopy 1958 western Terror in a Texas Town, where Sterling Hayden puts on a supernaturally silly yumpin’-yiminy accent and brings a harpoon to a gunfight. But hey, you can’t win ’em all.)
The leads in the film are a curious pair, if only because, despite tremendous chemistry in a perfect match-up and an obvious ability to dig down to the throbbing heart of their roles, neither had much of a career. The male lead, Bart Tare, is played with a subdued, nervous energy by the lanky, intense-looking John Dall; but aside from terrific performances here and in Hitchcock’s Rope, he was primarily a stage actor and didn’t do much film work before dying of a heart attack in his early 50s. Gun Crazy‘s deadly female is Annie Laurie Starr; her sulky blonde good looks are a perfect negative image of the desperate, beaten-down character she plays. The Irish actress Peggy Cummins nails the role with that hypnotic shock that comes from the best on-screen performances, but while she had a longer career than did Dall, she too made a relatively small number of films before marrying well and retiring early. That makes the best-known actor in the movie Russ (“Rusty”) Tamblyn, who plays Bart as an adolescent, but the lack of star power doesn’t lessen its impact one bit, because the story focuses almost exclusively on the insular, fatalistic romance of Bart and Laurie, and they’re both played to the hilt.
For a movie so saturated in sex and violence, it starts out very much in the mold of a ’40s sentimental weepie: young orphan Bart is sent to reform school after smashing into a hardware store to steal a revolver. His Leave It to Beaverish friends and his emotionally overwhelmed older sister swear to the judge that Bart wouldn’t even hurt a fly — but then again, neither would Norma Bates. The truth is known to Bart himself, and perhaps suspected by the judge who sends him to juvie: Bart likes guns. He likes them a lot. And not just in the way that a lot of people find their heaviness, their danger, their menacing weight in their hands to be strangely seductive: guns turn him on, and he can no more resist grabbing for the sexiest one he can find than most kids that age can keep their hands off their own piece when they first find Dad’s Playboy in the sock drawer. Trumbo’s script, as well as the Hays Code restrictions of the time, keep the lesson from being too obviously Freudian, but the first element is in place. Bart serves out his term in reform school (a place none too likely to dull his fetishization of firearms) and then joins the Army, where he naturally becomes a sharpshooter. It’s left unsaid, but he probably proves to be a naturally gifted killer, as well, and when he returns to his small Virginia town and his old friends, he’s a bundle of jangling, unused focus. The gun is there; the chamber is open. All that is needed now is the bullets to load it and the will to fire it.
The ammunition shows up in the form of Annie Laurie Starr. She’s engaged as a trick shooter in a traveling carnival that Bart and his friends go visit one bored and boring evening, and as in all classic noir narratives, his fate is sealed from that point forward. Sure, Annie is beautiful — nothing in this post could possibly communicate how beautiful; that information, as with most of the greatness of Gun Crazy, has to come from seeing the movie — but just as importantly to Bart, she’s good with guns. It may be that he’s better; that’s established in one of the film’s most notorious scenes, an accuracy contest between the two that uses stunt shots as an on-screen substitute for the couple’s first crazy fuck. If it wasn’t so perfectly staged and, frankly, hot (it’s a tremendous example of the way film noir pushed back against the restrictions of the Code with a variety of clever feints), it would seem hokey. But regardless of the outcome, the two are fused together for life, and death, as each has finally found someone equal to their skills and desires. Bart is the gun, and Annie is the bullet, beaten down by an endless series of bad breaks, lousy lovers, and all the other implied terrors of life as an independent-spirited woman in a time that didn’t welcome them. She’s got a hate-on for the world that let her down, and she’s ready to fight back.
The two creative forces behind the film each brought something to the table that helped elevate Gun Crazy to something more than a cautionary tale about letting your kid get an NRA boner. It was Trumbo’s idea to jettison a lot of extraneous material from Kantor’s article and focus almost exclusively on Bart and Laurie’s romance, turning the story into a murderous criminal version of Romeo and Juliet long before later, weaker imitators. Lewis had originally been surprised by the idea, but once he bought into it, he went all the way, ramping up the sexuality to its breaking point. He gave his leads blunt, almost pornographic directions and then let them loose, trusting them to play the scenes like they were almost ready to eat each other, and that’s just what they do. When Laurie, in pants so tight you can practically read them, first puts her hooks into Bart, she’s licking her teeth like she’s going to tear him apart; the two can’t take their eyes off one another, and neither can we.
She sees her chance and she jumps at it. Jettisoning carnival manager Packie, her thuggish boyfriend, for being a two-bit hustler who lacks the audacious crookedness to which she aspires, she hooks up with Bart and the two of them quickly learn the career limitations for a couple who don’t know how to do anything but put bullets through things. They blow the last of Bart’s savings on a losing streak in Vegas, and when Bart suggests settling down to a square life, Laurie pushes back hard. He doesn’t want to risk hurting anyone in a stickup job, but he’s also physically addicted to her, and pretty soon, “two people are dead, just so we can live without working”. She thrives not just on the shooting, but on the violence; as everything spirals out of control, he becomes more bitter and loveless, but she sputters and burns like a torch. Eventually, nothing is left but a sad and lonely death in an empty mountain brush.
Gun Crazy is a movie with precedents, to be sure, but with far more antecedents. Scene after scene shows up in more familiar movies, from the pair’s sunglasses-and-raincoats ensemble that’s echoed in Á Bout de Souffle, to Annie’s sweater-and-beret outfit that appears later in Bonnie and Clyde (where it’s an homage to a ’50s noir appearing in a ’70s movie that takes place in the ’30s). But like all the greatest movies, it’s more borrowed from than borrowing. For a second-tier crime drama that gained its audience through a rare second-chance change of producers, its images, themes and style show up in dozens of films over the next five decades. Its cinematographer was Russ Harlan, who worked on a lot of big-time pictures but was never considered one of the greats, and didn’t possess any particular noir sensibility; but there are elements of the tight, leaping tenseness of his work on The Thing from Another World and none of the wide, closeup-bereft grandness of Rio Bravo. It’s tempting, then, although probably only half-accurate, to credit Lewis for so many of the film’s brilliant touches. Gun Crazy certainly coheres — it’s a unified piece in a way the best noir films are — but it’s also comprised of dozens of moments that the viewer locks into like a hunter’s scope. The jaw-dropping (and almost entirely improvised) one-take bank robbery scene halfway through the movie is the most sustained and most famous of these, but there are so many others:
– The intimidating closeup of the Cashville sheriff’s face, streaked with rain, after young Bart trips and drops his stolen six-shooter
– The closeup of Bart’s hand, clutching and un-clutching into a nervous fist, when his friends take careless potshots at a mountain lion
– Bart and his now-grown friends, seen as blurry shapes from a distance, drinking beer and plunking the empties off of a tree branch
– Lots of little bits of improvised dialogue (“I can’t stand a warm beer”), the kind that comes from a director who implicitly trusts his actors
– Laurie’s first tooth-baring glimpse of Bart, and the way she keeps glancing at him from the stage, culminating in a shot, from his point of view, of her targeting him straight down the barrel
– the reflection of Packie in the mirror, looking at the hole Bart just blew in it, right where his head would have been
– the outside of the “Desert Justice Cocktail Bar and Café”
– the hollow bitterness in Laurie’s voice, when she thinks Bart’s going to chicken out and leave her and says “Changed your mind, Bart?”
– the side shot of Bart gripping his head, like he’s got a migraine headache that’s about to eat his whole future, when Laurie makes it clear what she wants out of life and how she intends to get it
– the way the guns thrust in from offscreen, so blatantly sexual, in the stickup montage
– the Scorsesian overhead shot of Annie and Bart planning their last big job at the Armour meat-packing plant
– the getaway from the Armour plant, with Laurie’s hair whipping crazily in the wind with the camera perched just behind her
– Annie giving half a dozen reasons why she killed two people during the robbery, none as convincing as her shirt unbuttoned all the way down to the belly
– Bart hopelessly explaining to Laurie why they can’t use the usual methods of avoiding the cops, as the camera tracks past him while he’s still talking into the glow of the cars and streetlights behind them, like they’re already dead and no longer worth looking at
– The homely banality of Bart’s sister’s house, seeming like a whole different reality from the crazed electricity of the previous scenes, and the terrible moment when, after talking to his old friends, his head just fades out of the corner of the screen like a drowning man’s
There are few movies entirely without flaws, and Gun Crazy isn’t one of them. But there are also few movies that are every bit as good as they’re made out to be, and Gun Crazy is absolutely one of them. It’s also a particularly livid and pulsing example of what noir is supposed to be, in its purest form: dripping with blood and good intentions, throbbing with sex, and careening wildly from one striking scene to another while following a path as preordained as the path of a bullet.