There’s a disconnect to the 1950s best exemplified through media. One the one hand you have the Donna Reed world of mom, dad, and apple pie. And on the other you have the dark and shadowy world of film noir which truly came into its own during this time. Director Joseph H. Lewis’ gritty, low-budget noir, Gun Crazy is a unique film on its own, lacking the gloss and shine of an A-noir and running concurrently with the rise of the juvenile delinquent features with its story of young lovers on the run. Newly released on a beautiful Blu-ray through Warner Archive, Gun Crazy is innovative in all the right places.
Bart Tare (John Dall) is a young man fresh out of reform school for attempting to steal a gun. Guns are his passion. But when he meets carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) he meets a woman who inspires a new type of passion in him. Laurie, though, wants the finer things in life and soon convinces Bart to engage in a series of bank robberies with her, using their sharpshooting skills to further their career of crime.
Gun Crazy is part of the amour fou (mad love) series of films where two lovers, high on each other and crime, find an outlet for their mutual appetite for destruction. In this case, neither character is a saint, though one has more of a conscious than the other. Dall’s Bart is our protagonist, introduced to us as a child who fosters a love of guns. Is it because he doesn’t have a father around? Or is it just because guns are part of his DNA? The script never makes it clear so the audience is left to wonder. This isn’t a film that deconstructs nature versus nurture in the way The Bad Seed (1956) does. It simply posits whether a love of anything, whether it be guns or women, can be too much.
John Dall was never a serious leading man, but here as the morally conflicted Bart you can see the dynamic range on him. This is a far cry from his previous role as the villainous Brandon in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Much of what compels Dall’s Bart is his love (and lust) for Laurie, and because he’s so lovesick it’s understandable that the fiery Peggy Cummins upstages Dall. This was a consolation prize for Cummins after being let go from Twentieth Century Fox and replaced in Forever Amber (1947). As Annie Laurie Starr, Cummins imbues the character with so much animal magnetism you’ll be waiting for her to turn into a cat person. Cummins growls nearly all of her lines, disdain and excitement mutually entwined on her lips. As the two drive away from a bank heist Joseph’s camera – placed in the backseat of their car shooting them from behind – captures the look of glee on Cummins’ face as she purrs that they got away. Dall’s lanky body and affable mien are no match for this woman.
Despite the title, which opens a doorway into the interest of these two characters, Gun Crazy acts as a relationship drama. The young couple have a whirlwind courtship, and where most movies would end with “happily ever after,” the film goes on, showing the two struggle to make something of the American Dream on limited means. Bart wants to give his wife a life of substance, whereas Laurie wants “action” and “guts.” But the Eisenhower ’50s, with its emphasis on the suburbs and conformity, isn’t built for their hopes and thus they turn to crime. Lewis creates a manic, kinetic world of violence, yet one absent of actual terror. We never see Laurie and Bart hold up a bank, and in fact when they do attempt to rob a meat-packing plant the violence takes place off-screen. The audience is left to focus on Laurie’s blank stare as she transitions from robbery to murder. For the film, it isn’t about showing scared people, but the perpetrators who, despite not wanting people to get hurt, fail to see they actually are (or just refuse to acknowledge it).
The film was the obvious inspiration for a better known feature about lovers on the run, the 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, I’d say Bonnie and Clyde owes more to Gun Crazy than the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Where that film was ’60s cool set in the ’30s, Gun Crazy could be set in anytime. Theodora Van Runkle’s costumes for Bonnie and Clyde, filled with smooth dresses and berets, are practically Peggy Cummins’ entire wardrobe. And both films have an interest in male impotence, with Clyde and Bart using guns as sexual metaphors for their lack of mojo.
Gun Crazy is a unique entry into the world of noir. Its gritty, B-movie pulpiness isn’t seen as a detriment and is embraced by Lewis and company. Dall and Cummins are great, and Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray presentation looks as sparkling (if not more so) as it did in 1950.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.