Classic Noir: Gun Crazy (1950) - Reviewed

Courtesy of United Artists
Film noir or that stylishly dark crime drama cloaked in smoke involving shadowy figures lurking about dangerous or threatening looking settings, may have originated in 1920s German Expressionism but it kicked into high gear in the mid-1940s when American filmmakers began pushing bleaker, more realistic stories into cinemas.  Though referred to at the time as melodrama, in hindsight they’re characterized by their uncompromising bleakness, their aura of danger and their intentional absences of a moral center.  Usually involving cigarette smoking, gun-toting stray characters navigating hard boiled underworlds of crime fiction, film noir has evolved over the years into a variety of forms parodied as well as channeled into new arenas such as neo-noir or tech-noir.

Which brings us to the 1950 killer couple thriller Gun Crazy, a film that remains the benchmark of movies about criminals on the run in love.  Opening on teenager Bart Tare (a very young Russ Tamblyn) who is obsessed with guns, so much so that he breaks into a hardware store to steal one, landing him in reform school.  Years later after a brief bout in the Army, Bart (played as an adult by John Dall), Bart and childhood best friends Dave (Nedrick Young), Clyde (Harry Lewis) and his older sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) attend a traveling carnival where they witness skilled sharpshooter Annie “Laurie” Starr (Peggy Cummins) pulling off incredible feats with her pistol.  Awestruck, Bart challenges her to a contest and wins, sparking a mutual attraction in one another much to the chagrin of her piggish boss who fires her.  Hitting the road spending what’s left of Bart’s money, Laurie proposes an ultimatum: join forces in gunpoint robberies or she’ll leave him.  Dumb, lovesick and easily impressionable, he agrees and the two embark on a nationwide crime spree.
One of the quintessential examples of the tropes of film noir is Terror in a Texas Town director Joseph H. Lewis’ timeless crime epic Gun Crazy, a film that seemed to predict the Starkweather love couple’s murder spree while paving the way for such iconic crime cinema fare as Bonnie and Clyde (upon which Bart and Laurie were based), Badlands and even Natural Born Killers.  Penned by then-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and based on a short story in The Saturday Evening Post by MacKinlay Kantor, this raw and realistic unglamorous crime saga is an uncompromising study of madness, the power and thrill of wrongdoing and at heart a down-to-Earth story of two doomed lovers racing each other to the end of their lifelines taking innocent lives with them on the way.  Most strikingly, it introduced into the film world one of late-50s noir’s most formidable femme fatales and serial murderesses to stalk the silver screen.
The first aspect signifying Gun Crazy as a brooding and gradually harrowing noir is its gloomy yet stylized look by legendary To Kill a Mockingbird cinematographer Russell Harlan.  Using light and shadow, focus and closeness to the actors meticulously from start to finish, Gun Crazy is visually dynamic with an almost hyperactive sense of blocking and framing.  Take for instance the aforementioned contest on the carnival grounds with the soon-to-be deadly duo’s challenge of lighting candles above their heads with bullets, a scene that could go any number of ways but winds up consummating their relationship.  There’s an uncomfortable tension in the room thanks to the camera being placed behind Peggy Cummins’ head as John Dall points his pistol at her (and us).  Then there’s the use of close-ups that encroach dangerously close to each actors’ faces, letting you see and feel the sweat of their brows dripping down their cheeks.  Immensely, almost intimately detailed camerawork including but not limited to most of the car scenes being done without rear projections.

Then there’s eventual Around the World in Eighty Days composer Victor Young’s dark and foreboding score that forecasts trouble before our troubled antihero/villain Bart comes onscreen.  Aggressive and tense without becoming bombastic save for key moments, the score strongly exudes the anxieties and psychoses shared by the two main characters.  There’s also just the right amount of sardonic humor that’s at once knee deep with this serial murdering couple while also poking jet black fun at the Hell of their making.  As police forces start a nationwide manhunt for the couple, pursuing them relentlessly into rougher rural terrain, the score becomes all the more desperate with heavy implications things won’t end well for them.
Of course, the ensemble crime drama wouldn’t have the lasting power without the pitch perfect casting of Peggy Cummins and John Dall.  Tall, lanky and with a face that could double for Lee Marvin’s stoic mug, Rope actor John Dall manages to convincingly make Bart into a skillful oversized pushover who is at the mercy of the wily manipulator Laurie, also played excellently (and intimidatingly) by Irish actress Peggy Cummins despite being half of her screen partner’s size.  When first introduced, she points her gun directly into the eye of the camera, effectively at us.  Over the course of the film, most of the bloodletting comes from her cajoling or threatening Bart with either leaving or perhaps trying to take one of his own sister’s family members hostage.  At once the antithesis of and the essential component to Bart’s existence, their pairing invariably brings things out of each other they never thought themselves capable of.

Released by United Artists at the height of the film-noir movement, Gun Crazy at the time was one of the more shocking and disturbing studies of sociopathy and obsession with the destructive power of the gun to come out and terrorize moviegoers.  In the years since, the film understandably was canonized by its induction into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as well as the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies.  A movie that ushered in a never-before-seen kind of femme fatale and one of the earliest examples of the killer couple film that helped ensure films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands would get made, Gun Crazy is something of a timeless masterpiece that remains startlingly fresh and hasn’t lost its sharp bite to age.  Though the two actors remained active in film over the years, they never quite reached the heights of this one which left an indelible imprint onto the American understanding of what noir-ish crime sagas about happy-go-lucky serial killer couples would or would not become. 

--Andrew Kotwicki