Monday, June 15, 2009

Gun Crazy (King Bros./United Artists, 1949/50)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the poor print quality of the UCSD channel’s showing of Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo, Lewis’ Gun Crazy was a refreshing change, not only because it was shown in an excellent print — the images of cinematographer Russell Harlan clear and bright, the sound (excitingly and creatively designed by Tom Lambert, who could have given Michael Cimino lessons in how to use sound effects lavishly and intelligently without rendering key dialogue inaudible!) crisp and the dialogue easily audible — but also because it was a far better movie. Lewis’ direction this time is taut and energetic, with unflagging intensity; the script by MacKinlay Kantor (an odd name indeed to find on the credits of a film noir, but he wrote the source story published in the Saturday Evening Post) and Millard Kaufman (The Film Noir Encyclopedia credits the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo with a contribution as well) is far richer and better structured than Philip Yordan’s for The Big Combo; and the acting in this one is superb.

Basically it’s a story about a husband-and-wife team who meet in a circus sideshow, work together as markspeople and then turn their skills with guns into armed robbery — Annie Oakley and Frank Butler meet (or, rather, become) Bonnie and Clyde. What makes this one work so superbly is a marvelous combination of elements: Lewis’ direction (years later he boasted that all the shots of the hero and heroine — if you can call them that — fleeing the scenes of their robberies in getaway cars were shot on real streets, with no process work, and with actual bystanders and drivers on the streets as well as Lewis’ actors), a well-characterized script (even though the Freudian symbolism of gun = penis and violence = sex gets a bit heavy-handed at times) and marvelous performances by the leads, Peggy Cummins and John Dall. Dall is, if anything, even more effective as the passive member of a straight criminal couple than he was as the active member of a Gay one in Hitchcock’s Rope; and Cummins is even better in her evocation of the sheer visceral (and erotic) thrill she gets out of violence and crime.

The film also evokes White Heat (made the same year) in its intriguing contrast between the rugged individualism of the criminals and the heavily organized, corporate structure of the police apparatus seeking to catch them (one reason for the fascination of this film — to the extent that 11 years after it was made it was quoted in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless, whose protagonist, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, actually watches it and takes the criminal characters as role models! — is that the crooks seem so much more whole, so much more truly alive, than the cops), and Kantor gives it an air of genuine tragedy by having the couple finally caught because they do something sympathetic and painfully human: they go back to the town where Dall’s character grew up to see his family, and are ultimately discovered and killed by his childhood friends (one of whom just happens to have become the town sheriff). Gun Crazy is a work of surprising dignity as well as richness, in which the sex-violence interchange powers the entire plot instead of seeming an afterthought (as it did in The Big Combo) and the lovers on the run retain a surprising degree of sympathy even though the acts they do are unquestionably horrible (a balancing act the later Bonnie and Clyde also tried, though Gun Crazy pulls it off even better). — 2/28/99


Directed by Joseph H. Lewis from a Saturday Evening Post short story by MacKinlay Kantor, author of Glory for Me (the basis for The Best Years of Our Lives) and Andersonville and a far more prestigious literary “name” than usually turns up on a film noir, Gun Crazy was scripted by Kantor and “Millard Kaufman” (though according to “Kaufman” was a front for Dalton Trumbo!) and tells the story of Bart Tare, a small-town boy who grows up with a pathological obsession with guns. It’s not that he actually wants to shoot any human or animal — as an early flashback shows, he once shot a BB gun into a chicken and her chicks, killed one of the chicks and never got over it — he just likes the feel of a gun, and while the Production Code allowed the writers to do no more than hint as to why, it’s incredibly obvious to anyone with a mental age above about five that his gun obsession is sexual, an elaborate Freudian displacement of his anxieties about his own sexuality.

Tare is played by Rusty Tamblyn (later Russ Tamblyn, the second male lead in the film of West Side Story who totally out-acted the bland Richard Beymer in the lead) at age 14, and in the first scene this incarnation of the character throws a rock through a hardware store window, steals a gun, then slips and falls in the street (all this is happening in a driving rainstorm) and picks up the gun, then looks up and sees that it fell at the feet of a sheriff’s deputy and he is so caught. He’s then shown in his juvenile court hearing, where we learn that his parents are dead and he’s been raised by his older sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw), and she and his friends Dave Allister and Clyde Boston (Paul Frison) testify on his behalf — Dave and Clyde recall a camping trip the three took as seven-year-olds (they’re played, of course, by a different set of actors in the flashback, including Mickey Little as Bart and David Bair as Dave) in which, asked by the other boys to kill a mountain lion, Bart froze because he couldn’t bear the thought of killing anything. Despite all the hearts-and-flowers testimony on Bart’s behalf, the judge sentences him to reform school -— and the film suddenly leaps ahead eight years.

Bart has spent half of those years in reform school and half in the army — where they kept him stateside and had him teach other people how to shoot — and when he gets out he’s played by one of Hollywood’s most famous screaming queens, John Dall. The actor lived with his mother — they were jokingly called “The Dalls” around Hollywood — and he was reportedly so nellie that Bette Davis tried to get him fired from her 1945 film The Corn Is Green; not that she minded him being Gay, but he was so queeny she didn’t think he was suitable for his role as the son of a Welsh miner whose chance to leave the mining village and get a college education is temporarily derailed by the fact that he’s got a local girl pregnant. Anyway, when Bart gets out of the army and returns to his home town he has little money and no job prospects, and he meets his old friends Dave (Nedrick Young) and Clyde (Harry Lewis) — Dave now edits the town paper and Clyde is the town sheriff — and they go to a traveling carnival run by Packett (Berry Kroeger). The carnival’s star attraction is markswoman Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins, top-billed), who in an obvious imitation of the real Annie Oakley is billed as “direct from London,” and the moment Bart sees Annie and the way she handles her guns, he’s smitten big-time. The only problem is that Annie is more or less the girlfriend of Packett, who’s blackmailed her into the relationship because they once held up a man in St. Louis and Annie shot and killed him.

Packett hires Bart to travel with the carnival and makes him room with Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager), a philosophical clown (aren’t all movie clowns philosophical?) who warns him that he’s “dumb with women” and tries to alert him that Packett considers Laurie (the part of her name she goes by off-stage) his property and will resent it if anyone horns in on him. Bart tries to visit Laurie in her living quarters, sees Packett there making a drunken advance on her, and shoots the mirror of the room — getting both Bart and Laurie fired. They flee and decide to make their living as criminals — at least Laurie, who definitely wears the pants in their relationship, makes that decision and tells Bart to go along with it or she’s leaving him — with Bart pulling various holdups and eventually the two of them graduating up to bank robbery. They get the money but the robbery turns messy and the two have to lay low for a while, re-emerging with an elaborate plan to rob the payroll of the Armour meat-packing plant (one surprise in this 1949 movie is the use of a real company name rather than a made-up one!) by first working their way in as employees and then springing the trap and doing the job at just the right moment.

The robbery goes per plan except for one old woman who trips the burglar alarm, forcing Laurie to shoot her and a security guard, and the two bandits to flee in a panic; later, when they start spending the proceeds from the job, they find that the bills’ serial numbers have been recorded and they are found out. Eventually — after a grimly amusing scene in which Dave as the local editor boasts that the most famous fugitives in the country are among their town’s native sons and he’s going to write an article about them (what’s he going to headline it, one wonders — “Local Boy Makes Bad”?)— Bart and Laurie turn up at the home of Bart’s sister, now married to a decent guy, Ira, and obviously torn between her family ties to Bart and her loathing of what he has become. Bart takes Laurie into the mountains, but his old camping buddy Clyde knows the mountains as well as he does and finds him. In a desperate panic, Bart shoots Laurie before expiring himself from a policeman’s shot.

Gun Crazy — originally titled Deadly Is the Female, which hints at far less of the plot than Gun Crazy — is the masterpiece of its sporadically interesting director, Joseph H. Lewis, who had started out making lousy East Side Kids and Bela Lugosi movies at Monogram and slowly worked his way up; though the plot is pretty obviously inspired by the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the movie is driven by obsessions far beyond those documentable in the lives of any real crooks. The film is pretty obviously powered by Freudian symbolism — particularly the oft-quoted metaphor between the penis and the gun that points out their similar shapes (they’re both long, cylindrical and shoot out things) and opposite functions (a penis shoots out things which create life, a gun shoots out things which destroy it) — and also by the reverse dynamics of the sexual relationship between Bart and Laurie.

John Dall’s queeniness and his rather odd appearance made him problematic to cast, but they’re precisely right for Bart (much the way Macaulay Culkin was so perfect as Michael Alig in Party Monster) — and instead of playing the femme fatale in the approved growling fashion of Barbara Stanwyck or Ann Savage, Peggy Cummins affects an almost kewpie-doll appearance and a high, rather squeaky voice to match, creating a fascinating clash of images with her butch persona and her obvious use of firearms as a strategy to overcome her own penis envy (part of her stage act consists of her bending over with her legs spread and firing a gun between them just below crotch level — and Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan naturally shoot this from an angle that emphasizes the phallic symbolism).

Though it’s not a film big on chiaroscuro visuals, Gun Crazy qualifies as film noir because of the complexity of the characterizations, the moral reversal we as audience members are kept in through much of the film (as in the most famous later version of this story, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, we’re generally rooting for the crooks over the cops) and the combination of symbolism and relentless action; it’s not surprising that this was the movie that inspired Godard to make Breathless (indeed he even used a clip from Gun Crazy in Breathless as a film that the male lead sees and takes as a role model), and the story’s circular structure, with the criminal couple returning to the male member’s home town and seeking refuge in the familiar locations already established as important to him in his boyhood, makes the ending — he’s eventually shot by his boyhood friend turned sheriff — far more intense and moving than a simple Production Code-mandated bad-guy-must-die shootout.

Gun Crazy is a richly complex work that taps into a far wider range of dramatic issues than most films in the genre and manages to understate the sexual symbolism as well as other dramatic points like the contrast between the high life Bart and Laurie expect to live off their ill-gotten gains and the grungy existence they actually do end up with. Gun Crazy is almost a textbook example of the effect the Production Code had on films for good and ill; it may have made it almost impossible to be honest about sex or violence on screen, but it also provoked talented filmmakers like Lewis, the King Brothers (who produced) and their writers to an imaginative treatment far subtler than the way all the gory details — all the bloodletting and the screwing — of a tale like this would be hurled in our faces by a modern filmmaker. (There was a recent — 1992 — remake, with the title mashed together into one word, Guncrazy, with James LeGros and Drew Barrymore in the leads and someone named Tamra Davis directing.) Gun Crazy is one of the thematically richest noirs and a triumph for Joseph H. Lewis, who for once got to direct a movie with both a script and a cast worthy of him. — 6/15/09