There comes a point where the act of criticism breaks down, and I’d be
hard-pressed to tell you exactly why I think Peggy Cummins is just
awesome as Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy.
She’s a little awkward — in every scene, if you’re listening
carefully, you can hear her trying to squelch her native British
accent. But it’s not an impediment to her performance, which is as raw
and sensuous as they come. Through much of the movie, Cummins redefines
the relationship between sex and violence, eyes afire, mouth agape,
bright gobbets of pure sex dripping from her open lips.
Her boyfriend is played by John Dall, who performed in Rope and Spartacus
but was never better than he is here. After the style of Jimmy Stewart,
Dall’s Bart Tare is a little goofy and a little eager, but he makes a
likeable, believable gun fetishist. His friends and family explain that
Bart just likes guns and would never willingly hurt another living
thing, but we understand that there’s something unwholesome about him.
He’s a sucker for Laurie, but not a chump — Laurie takes advantage
without practicing open deceit, meaning that Bart knows pretty much
what he’s getting himself in for.
Most importantly, you do not get the feeling from this film
that Bart Tare has trouble getting it up. Director Joseph H. Lewis
later said that he instructed his two leads to perform like dogs in
heat. He got more or less what he was looking for.
“We go together like guns and ammunition,” Laurie tells Bart
at one point. It’s one of the most perverse lines in all of film noir,
a figurative sex-death fusion that predated fashionable nihilism.
(There’s no doubt that Laurie and Bart were the movies’ original Bonnie
and Clyde.) Remarkably, the fish-out-of-water performances live up to
that promise. Gun Crazy is probably the most perfect B-movie
ever made. Presumably because the original title appealed to low
craving, the studio slapped a new title on the picture, Deadly is the Female, but it didn’t stick. As a title, Gun Crazy is sensational and unapologetic. It’s not just a suggestion of deviance — it’s a promise.
It’s common knowledge now that the blacklisted screenwriter
Dalton Trumbo worked on this picture, using Millard Kaufman as a front.
Nowhere could the Trumbo influence be more evident than in the
hodgepodge of scenes that open the movie, explaining Bart’s history. We
see a young Bart (played by a 16-year-old Russ Tamblyn) steal a
six-shooter from a shop window on a rainslicked small town street. As
he runs away, Bart trips and falls at the feet of the sheriff, towering
over him unexpectedly. Bart winds up in a courtroom, where a judge puts
Bart’s weird gun fixation on trial, describing it as “a dangerous
mania.” Supported by flashbacks, Bart’s friends and what’s left of his
family testify that Bart would never hurt another living thing — but
the judge nevertheless orders Bart to go away to reform school, where
he’ll be separated from the weapons he loves most until he’s of age.
Years later, after a stint with the army, Bart returns home
and hooks up with his old buddies. When the three of them go out to a
carnival, disaster strikes — Bart is amused (and probably aroused) by
the performance of fetching sharpshooter Annie, and takes her up on her
offer to outshoot any man in the tent. To Annie’s chagrin, Bart wins
the duel, and is soon hired on to join the carnival doing what he does
best. Annie and Bart seem like two misfits truly made for each other,
but it’s not long before they find themselves out of work and desperate
for cash. And while Bart insists that he has no aspirations of becoming
a stickup artist, Annie refuses to become a pauper, and scorns his
timidity. “You’d better kiss me goodbye,” she suggests. And we
understand that there’s no way in hell he’ll agree to do that.
The centerpiece of the film, the apex of its low-key,
low-budget dazzle, is a bank heist seen entirely from the back seat of
a stolen Cadillac. The dialogue between Bart and Annie as they roll
into town is improvised — they didn’t even know where they would park
— and Lewis himself claims that bystanders were convinced that a bank
had just been robbed. Lewis’s Hollywood contemporaries watched the
movie over and over again, trying to figure out how he synchronized so
much rear projection footage — but the whole sequence is absolutely
real, shot on the cheap and by the seat of the pants. There were
directors who shot heists with more style, who dollied cameras through
city streets with more complicated grace, but nobody had ever made
robbery look like such a cheap, gritty thrill or so completely
accompliced the viewers. No problem — watch, from the back seat, those
glances Annie keeps throwing over her shoulder, teeth bared, a weird
animal ecstasy taking hold. Oh yes, Cummins got this one just right.
The ostensible moral of the story is that women will ruin your
life, and the underlying message — as put across in the very final
scenes — is that it may be better to betray lovers than friends.
Still, the indignation doesn’t run very deep. This is a
have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of moralizing, the kind that revels
in the very flesh and gunsmoke that it pretends to disdain for the sake
of propriety. It’s true that Bart looks kind of bombed-out by the time
his big adventure is over, but all that gunplay is undeniably more
exciting than the dreamy family life his friends enjoy. If he had it to
do all over again, given the choice between two very different sorts of
American dream, I’ll bet Bart would come out shooting every time.
For the rest of us, it may be enough just to take a ride in that back seat. Gun Crazy
is a great film noir, but it’s something else, too. It’s a critical
element in the myth of America-according-to-the-movies that stands
outside of concerns of style or genre. In so many ways — from the
adrenaline rush of bank robbery to Cummins’ perfect little beret — Gun Crazy is more crucial, more sordid, and more artful than its dozens of lovers-on-the-lam descendents.