The Warner Archive comes through with a film noir gem that still has the power to make one’s skin crawl, as a pair of circus sharpshooters go on the lam, using their skills to pull off cheap robberies. The clammy feeling of being cut off from society, having no place to go, is expressed in near-existential terms. Peggy Cummins’ cheap tease Annie Laurie Starr promises John Dall’s Bart Tare eternal love, but what good are promises from a psycho?
Warner Archive Collection
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 87 min. / Street Date , 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Anabel Shaw, Harry Lewis, Nedrick Young, Rusty Tamblyn, Morris Carnovsky.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Film Editor: Harry Gerstad
Production Designer: Gordon Wiles
Original Music: Victor Young
Written by Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor from his short story
Produced by Frank King, Maurice King
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
The first time I heard the term Film Noir was at Los Angeles’ FILMEX at Grauman’s Chinese in 1971, when Paul Schrader penned his tight little manifesto on the style and screened ten terrific exemplars, including Joseph H. Lewis’ superb, disturbing Gun Crazy. But it took years for the notion of noir to percolate down into the culture at large, not until the late ’70s after Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward’s timely Film Noir Encyclopedia was published. In my memory the term Film Noir was first used in mainstream film marketing in 1981, when a reviewer referred to Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat as a ‘neo-noir.’ Some of us stayed glued to the TV guides to catch up with late-night screenings of various noir rarities through the early ’80s; I was convinced that the programmers for Los Angeles stations were budding noir enthusiasts as well, as titles like Detour and The Accused arrived to be cassette-taped and watched the following day. As cable TV took over, old features stopped being shown on broadcast stations.
But some titles never showed, not even on Ted Turner’s cable outlet TBS. I finally caught up with Gun Crazy when the now-gone Sherman Theater in Sherman Oaks held what might have been the first Film Noir festival. In miserable 16mm prints we saw Gun Crazy and Lewis’s The Big Combo together for the first time, and they took our heads off. Back in our parents’ time, a few filmmakers were making movies more exciting and subversive than anything being made.
Joseph H. Lewis’ ode to criminal irresponsibility remains one of the most popular films noir because, like Kiss Me Deadly, it’s an irresistibly violent and sexy bundle of anti-social fun. I should think it must have scandalized the bluenoses of 1950. The tawdry tale of Romeo and Juliet as armed robbers flaunted Hollywood taboos both written and unwritten. The appeal begins with the anatomically exaggerated poster illustration (used on the disc cover).
1950 was long before the emergence of the ‘all guns, all the time’ lifestyle that presently obsesses the nation. Guns play an important role yet are not fetishized to an extreme. As a child Bart Tare grips his gun only because he’s afraid it will be taken away from him. Our two adult lovers are expert shots that flaunt their skill as flashy entertainers, but they make love to each other, not their six-shooters. Their sex delirium is not a worship of Smith & Wesson gunmetal. Noted for a realistic, riveting robbery sequence filmed all in one take, Gun Crazy folds documentary-like location work into its marvelous brand of deep-noir stylization.
Finished with both reform school and the army, gun-lover Bart Tare (John Dall of Rope) meets his destiny in the shape of lovely trick-shot artiste Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins of Curse of the Demon). After a whirlwind courtship they run away from the circus together. Laurie wants nothing to do with ‘small time’ living, and breaks down Bart’s resistance to crime with the threat that she might leave him. They become armed robbers especially adept at evading the law. But Bart harbors a secret from his childhood: he’s constitutionally incapable of shooting any living thing.
Gun Crazy is a cinematic sketch book of good techniques used with perfect precision. Director Joseph H. Lewis worked with a motivated crew on this low-budget independent picture; although it failed in release under a different title, it would later cement his reputation as an extremely creative moviemaker. The film’s look avoids anything resembling fussy art effects, yet every shot is splendidly designed down to the last detail. Lewis frames young Rusty Tamblyn half off-screen to accentuate his instability, and places Bart’s ‘normal’ sister and ‘abnormal’ spouse in the same frame to maximize their contrast. Every scene shows that he has complete control of the screen.
Dalton Trumbo’s credit was restored to Gun Crazy long after he died; credited Millard Kaufman was a front writer who dealt with the studios when Trumbo was blacklisted. The story utilizes a rapid set of flashbacks in a judicial hearing to explain the source of Bart Tare’s phobia against killing; it never explains why he (sigh) just likes guns a lot. We read plenty into his obsession without further symbolism. Bart’s noir fate is sealed when he links up with the cold-blooded, manipulative Annie Laurie Starr. They make terrific music together on the sideshow runway (bang – bang – bang!), and Laurie is one of the strongest teases in films to date. Cooly explaining that she needs a guy who can go all the way, Laurie entices Bart with an exposed leg while giving him an ultimatum: help her do armed robberies, or scram.
I’ve actually heard Peggy Cummins’ game-changing performance derided as derivative of Veronica Lake, which is nonsense. I more clearly see Ms. Cummins as finding herself in the same bind as many young actresses in the cruelly rigged game of Hollywood star-making. Unfairly scrubbed from Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber, Cummin’s hot career all but froze up as the trades assumed she was a total bust. With nothing to lose, the wildcat role in Gun Crazy was at least something to turn heads. She should have clicked and proceeded directly to the head of the class, but the big studios resisted what they felt were interchangeable starlets, especially when they were ill-using too many of their own contract players. Ms. Cummins’s career continued, but she wouldn’t be fully ‘discovered’ until a refined film fandom caught up with actresses like Ann Savage, Jean Gillie, Jane Greer, Marie Windsor and Audrey Totter. Even in their ‘sixties and ‘seventies, these women still had plenty of ‘it.’
The film is chock full of hardboiled dialogue delivered at just the right sordid pitch. “You’ll always be nothing but a two-bit guy!” Laurie snarls at Packy, her previous lover-patsy (Berry Kroeger). Trumbo (we assume) also writes one of the most anxious/despairing noir speeches ever, when Bart talks of life becoming an unending nightmare. Bart and Laurie are so thoroughly dedicated to each other that they’d rather die than separate, a fact that somehow elevates them to classic status. It’s Romeo and Juliet, running roadblocks and pulling off stick-ups. Bart always looks like he’s about to be sick, while Laurie embraces each criminal act with unbridled sexual glee: yes, Deadly is the Female — and the result is more liberating than misogynistic.
There’s a detailed location caper in the second half of the film, the robbery of a meat packing plant. But the film’s most written-about scene is the Hampton robbery sequence, shot all in one take from the back seat of the getaway car. Single take sequences are nothing now, especially when CGI manipulation can join shots seamlessly or soar around the action as a camera never could. But in 1949 the you-are-there aspect of experiencing the holdup in real time was quite a thrill. Although he never climbed into the higher ranks of filmmakers, Joseph H. Lewis was highly respected within the industry for this kind of innovation.
Peggy Cummins is perfect as Laurie, a character much different than her other genteel or less assertive roles. The movie smooths over her unlikely English background and she’s far too compelling for us to doubt her. When she needs to sneak through a roadblock she changes from hardbitten determination to sweet-talking local girl without losing a beat. In another disguise, they look so stiff and square behind the wheel that Lewis might be imitating a certain famous painting. John Dall is less a good actor than perfectly cast; when faced with the girl of his dreams his giant grin for once seems appropriate.
There’s only one awkward interruption to the story, a flatly directed and clumsily written scene in which Laurie and Bart whine about their predicament with the law, state their guilt and admit the basic immorality of what they’re doing. “Why do you have to kill people? Why can’t you let them live?” asks John Dall, reminding us of just how marginal an actor he is. “We go together, like guns and ammunition!” The dialogue suddenly becomes so poor, we’d easily believe that one of the producer’s kids wrote it – the scene looks, sounds and smells as if it were thrown together to get Gun Crazy past the censors.
The film soon shakes itself out of that scene for a frantic conclusion that begins with a romantic dance on the Santa Monica pier. The pitiful arc of Mr. and Mrs. Tare’s criminal career gives them time for just one embrace on the dance floor before they’re running again. Like panicked animals, they make mistakes and drop things. Holing up in Bart’s sister’s house, we get a good noir contrast of female characters in hardboiled noir. Wearing a black dress, Laurie trims her nails like an irate panther. Bart’s sister Ruby works like a sweating mule in the hard role of housewife. The movie doesn’t show us many more career choices.
Bart’s childhood trauma at killing a chick (a very effective scene) prepares us for the insanity of Laurie’s bursts of violence. At her worst she shoots a woman in the face just because it feels good. We’re soon sympathizing with Bart as he tries to cool down Laurie’s wild temper. At the end he finally breaks his own rule, fighting his nature to protect others from Laurie. Naturally, it means the end for Bart as well.
Gun Crazy was originally distributed through United Artists, released as Deadly Is the Female in January of 1950, and again in August eight months later as Gun Crazy. Its reputation beyond Hollywood and Paris circles didn’t emerge until the popularization of film noir in the ’70s; it was already a core inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in France.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Gun Crazy is an excellent encoding of this key noir title, a favorite of fans of offbeat ‘doomed lovers on the run’ movies. The picture is in good shape all around; I particularly like the lush music track by Victor Young, that makes much use of the hopeless romanticism of Young’s song ‘Mad About You’. Both it and another pop tune, ‘Laughing on the Inside, Crying on the Outside’ are sung by Tommy Dorsey’s vocalist Frances Irvin.
The story has been repeated too often that the King Brothers Frank and Maurice were criminals, or even gangsters, and the asinine movie bio Trumbo (2015) makes them seem as crass as Edward D. Wood’s producer in Tim Burton’s comedy Ed Wood (1994). Alan Rode tells me that there’s no truth to this widely believed rumor. Allied with writer / story broker / dealmaker Philip Yordan, the King Bros. (originally Kozinsky) made five other impressive noirs for Monogram/Allied Artists: When Strangers Marry (William Castle), Dillinger (Max Nosseck), Suspense (Frank Tuttle), The Gangster (Gordon Wiles) and SOuthside 1-1000 (Boris Ingster). All are available on DVD from The Warner Archive.
The WAC has added an interview-based feature documentary Film Noir- Bringing Darkness to Light, a long-form show that bombards us with mini sound bites, never letting anyone get out a full statement. The list of interviewees seemingly includes every notable person ever taped or filmed by TCM, who was asked the question, ‘so how about this film noir thing?’ Ported over from the 2004 DVD is an audio commentary by this reviewer, my first. I summarize the published facts about the film, compare it with the 1940 MacKinlay Kantor short story and venture some opinions about what it all means. It was a good experience. A French disc (2014?) included a lengthy researched book by Eddie Muller, translated into French.
I’m perhaps too easily impressed, but I thought it very cool that Elizabeth Ward wears Annie Laurie Starr’s signature sweater and beret from Gun Crazy in the back-cover photo on the first two editions of The Film Noir Encyclopedia. The actress gave them to Ward during an interview. The late Peggy Cummins was a visitor to the 2012 TCM Film Festival — here’s a photo of her with fellow TCM writer Jeremy Arnold, sadly, without her disarming smile.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Docu Film Noir — Bringing Darkness to Light; audio commentary by Glenn Erickson
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson