Classic Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

The film opens on a street at night. Rain falls. A hotel sign flickers in the background. Bart Tare, just a child and eventually our adult protagonist, emerges from behind a building. Eyeing up a revolver, he smashes a shop window and retrieves it. Immediately he is arrested and sent to reform school, but we feel that we know the narrative almost before watching it. As director Joseph H. Lewis’s kinetic and expressive tracking shots reveal, there is an unbreakable tie between Bart and weapons. He loves them as the cinema does.

Classical Hollywood films are often remarkably efficient in their storytelling, so it is no surprise that this desire for guns becomes something more deadly. Indeed, within the confines of the film noir genre, all Bart needs is a woman to begin his gradual but certain metamorphosis into a killer. When her returns as an adult to his old town, he visits a travelling show where the beautiful Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) demonstrates her extraordinary shooting talent. After falling in love, they embark on what is perhaps the greatest of all screen crime-sprees. The film is not only a brilliant and lucid action picture, but also a unique and strange one that operates on a pitch halfway between gritty B-movie naturalism and a perverse fascination with Freudian symbols, evocative settings, and truly sleek and virtuosic examples of editing and camerawork.

The plot is instantly familiar to anyone aware of Bonnie and Clyde or any of the violent road movies that it inspired. All the basic moments are there: the moments of doubt in the relationship; the couple stopping for a while at the quiet, unassuming town of a family member; and of course, the final, tragic fate that punishes their destructive behaviour. In a bad film this structure can be tedious, yet it can also present ample opportunity for heightened moments of suspense and pathos. In a sense every scene after the law is broken is just the director withholding death, and this poses some fascinating questions in relation to how the audience identifies with the protagonists; what horrific acts do we subdue in order to justify one more exciting scene – one more chance of escape?

Central to Gun Crazy, as with other crime-spree movies, is the tension between the normal world and the heightened world of violence. Lewis understands the audience’s inevitable spur towards the latter, and the film consistently intertwines the intoxicating nature of criminality with that of eroticism. Intimate, sexually-charged scenes are filmed either with equally close camera-angles or – in one, brilliant example – through a carefully constructed shot that covers a third of the screen with darkness, emphasising the intense bond of the couple but also their sense of entrapment.

The adult Bart is played by John Dall, who is mostly remembered for his role as the more charismatic murderer in Rope. Despite being dominant over Farley Granger’s character in that film, there is still an anxious energy to him – an awkwardness in the face of things obviously going wrong. In both performances, he knows that his time is running out, but will never admit it. Equally compelling is Peggy Cummins as the femme fetale. If film-noirs work on the basis of identifying with the seduced and mislead male figure, then the genius of Cummins’ performance is its enigmatic quality. Of course, the audience always senses that she is being manipulative, but, especially as she is introduced so brilliantly – in an exciting target practice scene that establishes a fantasy of cowboy costumes and revolvers – we are always attached to her.

The real draw of the movie is its style, and each action scene conveys a very clear knowledge of how to make a visceral and thrilling set piece. Everything feels so slick and modern – perhaps singularly in this period aside from Hitchcock. Lewis uses the macabre and powerful setting of an abattoir in one sequence, and another takes place entirely in one shot that stays fixed within a car as a robbery is taking place. The latter is evoked in the opening scene of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which is perhaps as good a testament as any to how fresh and innovative Gun Crazy remains.


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