by Frank Olson
There are few films as propulsive as Gun Crazy, Joseph H. Lewis’ delightfully gritty take on the classic “criminal lovers on the run” story. Every plot point, every line of dialogue, and every shot has been sculpted and sharpened for maximum efficiency and gut-level impact. Lewis and his creative team transform a generic outlaws on the lam plot into a live action flipbook of the seediest pulp novel covers.
February 18, 7:30pm
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Producers: Frank King, Maurice King
Writers: MacKinlay Kantor, Dalton Trumbo (as Millard Kaufman)
Cinematographer: Russell Harlan
Editor: Harry Gerstad
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Morris Carnovsky, Anabel Shaw, Harry Lewis, Nedrick Young, Trevor Bardette
US Theatrical Release: January 20, 1950
US Distributor: United Artists
Gun Crazy is smartly paced in the way that only old Hollywood movies are, with nothing lingering onscreen any longer than it needs to for the film to make its point. There is no fat here. Though the supporting cast creates a number of memorable bit parts, the only figures of any real importance are Bart Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a pair of firearm obsessives who quickly turn to a life of crime after their honeymoon drains their finances.
Stories of criminal couples on the run have been around as long as the cinema itself, but Gun Crazy distinguishes itself by thumbing its nose at social responsibility and going straight for primal impact. The narrative’s broad outlines suggest that crime doesn’t pay, but it is always clear from the film’s tone that the audience is being invited to be turned on by the salacious violence onscreen. The tragic romanticism of You Only Live Once and They Live by Night is nowhere in evidence here, and is replaced by a conflation of sexuality and violence so much in the foreground that it’s a miracle that a movie this raw was released in the ‘40s. (Bart and Annie’s meet-cute occurs during a shooting contest, where the foreplay is so blunt that it barely qualifies as suggestive). Nor does the film offer any pretense of social criticism, as in a later film like Natural Born Killers. Bart and Annie aren’t stand-ins for any idea so much as they are vessels for the audience’s most tawdry desires.
The film transcends the bland moralism that seems inherent in its premise through its sheer lustiness. Lewis reportedly instructed Dall to act as if his "cock’s never been so hard" and asked Cummins to portray her character as a "female dog in heat," and this is indeed how both characters come across onscreen. There is some puritanical sexism built into the scenario (perhaps unsurprising considering that one of its working titles was Deadly is the Female), with Annie using her charms to lure Bart into an amoral criminal underworld, but when she bites her lip during an exciting climactic car chase it’s impossible for the viewer not to identify with her insouciant pleasure. Gun Crazy probably wouldn’t have gotten past the censors if it didn’t include a few token scenes of supporting characters voicing their disapproval with the main couple’s criminal lifestyle, but everything that Bart and Annie do in the movie is infinitely more exciting than anything that happens to the other characters. Bart’s sister, a responsible citizen raising four kids, constantly looks harried and worn down, and the steady jobs of his childhood friends look a lot less glamorous and rewarding than Bart and Annie’s action-packed lives. This is a film that knows what its audience is here to see and isn’t afraid to revel in it.
While Gun Crazy’s lack of hypocrisy is appreciated, and the straight to the point filmmaking style makes for tremendous entertainment, its simplicity is a double-edged sword. The film does what it does exceptionally well, but there isn’t a tremendous amount of depth to it. No viewer will be left with much to think about after the credits roll, and the film lacks the nuances that we tend to associate with most classic movies. Nothing about the film is particularly innovative or influential. There is nothing to latch onto for anyone who places more importance on social values criticism than pure aesthetics.
Gun Crazy may lack the profundity to be a full-blown masterpiece, but its pure entertainment value is undeniable. The film is paced to match the reckless thrills of its main characters’ lives and there’s hardly any downtime between exciting action sequences. Russell Harlan’s documentary-style cinematography lends a you-are-there immediacy to each gun shot or quick turn of a speeding car, particularly during an impressive one-take bank heist scene and a chaotic climactic robbery of a meat processing plant. The gaudy, carny pleasures of the medium have rarely been so proudly on display as they are throughout Gun Crazy.