Monday, 4 August 2014

Gun Crazy (1949)

Gun Crazy
”Gun Crazy” is a combination of two genres of which I love one, the film noir, and have some problems with the other, criminal couples on the run. The result is a movie I cannot really say that I like due to the story it tells, but have to admire because of the style and the execution.

In the past year I have reviewed a ton of film noir, so I think my position on those should be quite clear and let me just say that the filming and the styling here is up to standard. It is dark indeed.

Instead let me explain my reservations.

Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Natural born Killers and quite a few before them. The story of two (or more) characters on the run from the authorities usually because of violent death is almost a generic story. I am not sure what the fascination is, because I do not feel it at all. On an intellectual level I understand that by being on the run these people experience the ultimate freedom because they are entirely free of regular society’s constraints and norms. These people have set themselves entirely outside the norm by breaking the law and feel exhilarated at least until the law or fate catches up with them.

Call me boring or dull, but I do not see the attraction in that at all. Or rather the need to kill people in order to feel free. What I see are people who make some poor choices. It is sad, but I do not feel much sympathy. In a movie (and series) like “The Fugitive” it is interesting because guilt is uncertain and we want the right thing to happen, not necessarily what the law thinks is right. But in “Gun Crazy” and it’s like there is no doubt of guilt. I cannot root for them. Instead I am just waiting for them to get caught before too many people die. I cannot say that that makes me enjoy a movie.

The cover of “Gun Crazy” scream: THRILL CRAZY… KILL CRAZY… GUN CRAZY… Clearly marketing hyperbole, you can almost hear the BAM! BAM! BAM! in the trailer. So this is a movie of youth gone wrong? Easy Rider or something like that? Nope. But GUN CRAZY is not so far off. Both of the two leads are gun fetishists and that to a troubling extent.

The guy is Bart Tare (John Dall). He grows up with guns, become quite a marksman and is sent to reform school because he steals a gun from a shop. Notice here that his relationship with firearms has nothing to do with him being sent off, no, it was because he was stealing. See, Bart would never hurt anybody so the guns are okay… At this point I am moving uncomfortable in my seat. Seeing the little boy on his wooden horse shoot things with his gun pushes a number of wrong buttons for me. Not so much that it happens, but the surrounding’s easy attitude towards it.

In any case we learn that besides his intense love of firearms Bart is a good boy who just wants to settle down a make a living. At this adult point in his life he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a girl just as infatuated in guns as he is and it is love at first sight (or shot). Annie is the femme fatale of noir, see, the difference between her and Bart is that she has no inhibitions on what she shoots at. Not that she is in some sort of shooting frenzy, she just does not care it she hurt or kill anybody. Also she is not content with settling down on a wage. She wants to live in style and with that imperative she drags the lovestruck Bart into big trouble.

Bart has every opportunity to say no and pull out of it, but such is the nature of a femme fatale that there is no defense. Bart has lost from day one. Unfortunately that does not earn him any sympathy medal from me. Blinded by love or not, by accepting her suggestions he is an accomplice and from then on they are on a tour of armed robbery with numerous fatalities. As they sink deeper and deeper into the muck their options get fewer and fewer. Every route gets shut down and it is quite symbolic that the final showdown is in a swamp.

The casting is interesting. John Dall I saw recently in “Rope” in which he was a very different sort of character. Gone here is all the arrogance and smartness and the only thing left is his boyish charms and good looks. It is sort of the honest looks of James Stewart. You would not know from the looks of him that this guy is in love with guns. Peggy Cummins I have not seen before, but with her they choose a woman with striking good looks. In slacks and with her hair-do she looks very modern and very charming. That is until she starts talking. She can with a perfect straight face say the most outrageous things and make Bart follow her. She is clearly the dangerous one of them. She is aware that she is a “bad girl”, but that changes nothing. She feels absolutely no compassion, shoots police and passersby and in one horrifying moment takes toddler to use as a human shield. Anyone familiar with my current whereabouts will know why I find that particularly despicable. Annie is a psychopath with an angels face and Cummins gets that across pretty well.

I mentioned the style of the movie and that is definitely a draw. We got some very interesting camera angles. Where other films would place a camera absurdly in front of the car looking in through an invisible wind screen and with some rear projection to simulate driving “Gun Crazy” often does it differently. It places the camera on the backseat with rear projection out the front window. Whatever you feel about rear projection this view gives you the acute feeling of being inside the car with the actors and is a lot more effective. When a front view is needed the camera is placed down between their legs looking up at them. Not you common place as a passenger, but still, we are inside the car. Taken together with the general filming and portrait of the couple we are definitely closer to them than we would normally be. It works wonders for the style and ambience, but it this case it also hammers through how much I cannot root for them.

If this was a warning against reckless use and access to guns I suppose it does a fine job. Even the resolution is caused by some trigger happy hillbillies. But I am afraid it was not really the point the film was trying to make. Instead it would be some argument about that it is not the gun but the one wielding it that is the problem. I cannot entirely subscribe to that position so maybe that is my problem with this movie.


  1. Oh, I had been looking forward to what you would say about this one! It is one of my favorite noirs. I don't see a message - pro or anti-violence - in it at all. To me it is a real exploitation film and the thrill is the thing. Of course, the criminals have to be punished. That is a given. But it is more about getting the audience wrapped up in the chases and robberies. Will they get away? You mentioned all the great style aspects that I love.

    It's a shame Peggy Cummins didn't work more. I thought she was very good. She's in another good genre film of the era, Val Lewton's Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur. It's not on the list but I can recommend it if you like stylish horror.

    1. Well, there is no doubt this is a very well made film. It is the storyline (and some of the pretexts) that I have a problem with and I suppose it is just me. I never liked gangster-couples-on-the-run films. So even a good one of those just fail to click with me.

      Peggy Cummins had the make for a very good actress. I read she did only few films and that is indeed a shame. I should look up the Val Lewton film.

  2. I'm with Marie on this--I love Gun Crazy. What I love most about it is how inherently sexual it is without there being a hint of real sex in it. Our first view of Annie--she might as well be doing a full-on strip tease.

    I also love the bank robbery scene for how it's filmed. That is genius filmmaking.

    1. I can understand why. There is a lot to love in this film. The execution is top notch. You can indeed see how Bart is getting turned on by Annie and her smoking guns. Listen carefully and we would almost be able to here them moaning.

  3. I don't have any issues, nor love, for the couples on the run genre, but I know where you're coming from. Gangster movies don't do much for me as a genre. I don't dislike them, but the characters hold no fascination for me.

    I loved the chemistry between the two leads in this film. I also wish Cummins had gotten more roles.

    1. Yeah, well, I generally feel a dislike for those characters and incomprehension to the facination so prevalent with criminals on the run. The odd thing is that I often find myself rooting for the bad guys in movies if the "hero" is too stupid or lame.

      Oh, there is definitely chemistry here. That is part of the near perfect execution.