Friday, June 19, 2020

Gun Crazy

John Dall and Peggy Cummins

GUN CRAZY            B                    
aka:  Deadly Is the Female
USA   (86 mi)  1950  d:  Joseph H. Lewis

Some guys are born smart about women and some guys are born dumb . . . You were born dumb.
—Carnival clown Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager)

An overly contrived yet subversive morality tale about America’s mad obsession with guns that swoons with exaggerated melodrama, remaining atmospherically moody and fatalistic, perhaps viewed as film noir’s answer to the collapse of the American Dream, offering a postwar sense of coddled entitlement or reckless self-indulgence, blindly overlooking the consequences or the damage done by guns, released nearly 50 years before the disastrous Columbine High School massacre, which seems to have set the stage for what are now routine occurrences in America, where school shootings are considered a uniquely American phenomenon due to the availability of firearms in the United States.  This film, however, presents the obsessive gun mania as a kind of ingrained disease, like a pathological condition that needs to be eradicated due to the inherent dangers it presents to society.  If only today we could live by the same simple principles that drove the 50’s conservatism and conformism of the postwar era, but this Pandora’s Box has been unleashed upon the nation, like a toxic pandemic of irreversible sins, refusing to abide by the anti-gun message this film presents, anticipating the worst of all possible outcomes, where death is the only outlet, our sins finally purged.  Using the cheap B-movie format, the Bonnie and Clyde (1967) saga has been retold for the disillusioned 50’s generation, using a perversely fascinating couple as outsiders living on the fringe of society, including John Dall, a gay actor, one of the alleged gay killers from Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948), subverting the masculine stereotype as Bart Tare, an emotionally disturbed war veteran with a lifelong fixation with guns, and Irish actress Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr, a blonde carnival sharpshooter equally enthralled with firearms, among the more memorable femme fatale bad girls who holds nothing back, openly blunt, addicted to the adrenaline rush of thrill-seeking, though she’s trouble with a capital T, hellbent on carrying out crime sprees, robbing banks or small stores, becoming a famed sociopathic duo making headlines wherever they go, with Bart too meek to say no, where their torrid love affair is fueled by their mad obsession with guns, where he boasts, “We go together like guns and ammunition.”  Both provide the performances of their careers in what is basically a portrait of small town America, viewing masculinity as a toxic condition, where Bart is seen at the outset as a troubled young child whose only interest is in guns, played by Russ Tamblyn, from Riff, the leader of the Jets, in WEST SIDE STORY (1961) to the weirdo town psychiatrist in Twin Peaks (1990 – 91, reprised in 2017), breaking into a gun shop to steal a revolver, only to be caught red handed.  The ensuing court scene reveals his backstory through a series of flashbacks, where he’s a good-natured kid fascinated by guns, but something of a misfit (Bart proudly showing his six-gun to fascinated grammar school classmates is particularly unsettling), developing an outright refusal to kill any living thing.  Nonetheless, the judge determines he’s a potential menace to society, sending him away to reform school where he’s not allowed to touch a gun until he comes of age, quickly serving a stint in the Army teaching marksmanship, then welcomed back home by his old classmates, in a safe and sound world that looks very much like 50’s television, where they visit a touring carnival in town, with Bart challenging the female gunslinger, outdueling her in a contest, where they quickly can’t take their eyes off each other, inflamed by their most primal desires.

An Appreciation - Gun Crazy | The MacGuffin  Allen Almachar, January 30, 2018

What makes film noir so fascinating is how tied in it is to history. Of all the different styles, movements, and trends that have existed in cinema, noir is placed so firmly into the culture of the mid 20th century that it’s difficult not to examine it without that context. There was this incredible melding of different societal issues that took place nearly simultaneously – resulting in an explosion of creativity seeped in the darker side of human nature. How it all came together is almost bewildering. There was the disillusionment of WWII, more women entering the work force, the migration of European directors to America, the rise in popularity of the crime novel, the lingering effects of the Great Depression – they all merged to create one of most interesting and studied of all film techniques.

You would think that right after the war, films would take a lighter approach, but it turns out the opposite was true. Many felt a growing cynicism as the horror of the war came to light. This lead to an increase of small budget crime dramas that had a darker tone in subject matter and visual style. Characters often lived on the opposite side of the law, and held a more ambiguous moral compass. Criminals became the protagonists. Cops and detectives had dirtier personalities, even turning to corruption to have their way. This was different than the gangster pictures of the 1930s – more psychological, more desperate. Falling in love didn’t mean “happily ever after,” it meant a one-way ticket to the slammer or the grave. And above all was greed: greed for money, greed for sex, or both.

Noir is a means to examine humanity under intense duress. It boils our desires, fantasies, and nightmares to their fundamentals. We all want a better life and fall in love, but how far do we go to attain that? There is a fine line between good and evil, and that is where noir works best. Of all the films that can be labeled under this category, Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) stands as one of the most provocative. Not only does it break the normal conventions of narrative storytelling, it breaks the normal conventions of noir itself. It tells the tale of two criminal lovers on the run without wasting the time to explain their disturbing behavior. Before Jean-Luc Godard redefined what it meant to be “cool” in Breathless (1960), and before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lit up the screen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there was Gun Crazy.

With symbols galore to fascinate viewers (guns may as well be a phallic symbol), turning this into a deliriously fun cult experience, the film lacks the haunting emotional devastation of Nicholas Ray’s love story on the run They Live By Night (1949) made just a year earlier.  Made for $400,000, shot in black and white in 30 days by Howard Hawks’ regular cinematographer Russell Harlan, where the source material was a ten-page Saturday Evening Post story by novelist MacKinlay Kantor, author of Andersonville, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, and Glory for Me, which became the Academy Award winning film THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946).  One of the screenwriters, working under the name Millard Kaufman, was Hollywood blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, a socialist that loved being rich, who refused to name names for the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was branded a national threat, creating a script filled with hyperbolic melodrama and familiar cliché’s, yet emphasizing violence as an American prototype.  United Artist producers, schlockmeisters known as the King Brothers, initially released the film under the conspicuous title Deadly Is the Female, which has brazenly aggressive misogynistic intonations, with overt sex-insinuating advertising, though the title never stuck, having the dubious distinction of being the only King Brothers production to lose money, where it confuses the message so openly highlighted in the initial title, yet prominently placed in the back of our minds is the recurring theme from Bart’s childhood, his reluctance to kill.  Among his pals, he seems like a regular guy, but once he sets his eyes on Laurie, dressed in full Wild West cowgirl regalia with guns blazing, shooting targets from between her legs, it’s as if the earth tilted on its axis, suddenly destabilized, where he couldn’t stop himself from craving to be near her.  Both fired by the carnival owner for flouting their sexuality, they go on a whirlwind romance that includes marriage, each revealing a checkered past, with Laurie claiming “I am bad, but will try to be good,” wearing that infamous beret made famous by Bonnie Parker, leading to a big spending spree, living in high style until the money runs out.  Pressed into taking a normal job with regular wages, Laurie bolts at the thought, saying it’s the last he’ll see of her, dressed only in her white bathrobe, slowly lacing on black stockings, exuding sexuality, claiming she is tired of getting kicked around and has plenty of living left to do, “I want a lot of things – big things!... I want action!”  Despite her questionable moral character, she remains oddly sympathetic throughout, where viewers get the sense she really can’t help herself, that she wants to be good, but can’t when relying upon her own feral instincts.  Unable to face life without her, they embark on a life of crime, where an element of danger has followed her for her entire life, now setting a trap for themselves, yet living like there’s no tomorrow.  Sex and violence have never been so fatefully aligned, as what arouses them both is the sight of guns, both feeling useless without them, so they may as well let their guns do the talking.  But while it’s been established that Bart has a moral conscience about shooting people, Laurie’s another matter altogether, as she has a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, where shooting is a compulsion that settles her nerves, that leaves her empowered, always having the last word.  While Bart’s under no illusions about what he’s getting himself into, he does so anyway, willingly, as he can’t break from the sexual allure, fueling his desires like a moth to a flame, where he feels like nothing is real, as if none of this ever happened, where he’s a completely different person, showing little regard for others, repeatedly violating the law, fatefully living a life on the run. 

While also directing one of the strangest westerns, Terror in a Texas Town (1958), also written by Trumbo, Lewis was one of the great low-budget stylists of his era, able to tell stories with gripping narrative skill and great economy, where this film was added to the National Film Registry in 1998.  Perhaps the best and most talked-about scene of the film is an early virtuoso bank robbery sequence, offering a sense of visual style, shot in “real time” from the back seat of the getaway car, all captured in a single shot from the vantage point of the back of the car, giving it a documentary style realism as they drive into town, both dressed in their Western attire, checking out the bank location, and improvise dialogue while searching for a parking place that suddenly and magically arises, with no blocking ahead of time.  Bart exits the vehicle to enter the bank, which is never shown, saving time and money, not having to construct a bank interior and hire extras, turning a 3 to 5-day shoot into a single day.  The camera sticks with Laurie in the car, who is immediately threatened by the presence of a cop walking in front of the bank and waiting, so she creates a diversion, talking with him, distracting his focus, waiting for Bart to come running out the bank, then pistol-whipping the officer as the bank alarm sounds during Bart’s dash back to the car, making a clean getaway, both feeling the pangs of anxiety mixed with the euphoric thrill from actually having pulled it off, Gun Crazy (1950) Heist Scene YouTube (3:27).  This film was the director’s favorite among all of his 40-odd films before retiring to make highly successful television westerns, and bears a resemblance to another controversial picture, Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968), starring another gay actor, Anthony Perkins playing off his mentally challenged persona in Psycho (1960), but meets his match in the perpetually youthful Tuesday Weld, a cheerleader turning fantasies into a darkly disturbed and violent reality, unleashing a sordid underside of America, where in each film the dominating personalities are ballsy, free-spirited women who are not only the brains behind the operation, but the brawn, subverting their beauty, crossing the moral line of ethics to kill with no compunction.  Both men are blindsided by this behavior, but drawn to their sexual allure nonetheless, entering a bleak, forbidden territory that previously existed only in their imaginations.  Lewis foreshadows their fate through accomplished musical scenes as they are about to make their escape to Mexico, set in Los Angeles at the Danceland Music Hall, as a musical interlude of “Mad About You” plays before singer Francis Irvin takes the stage with her jazzy rendition of “Laughing on the Outside,” with the lyrics suggesting love offers a fatalistic spell that can’t be overcome, “Cause I’m still in love with you.”  The full power of this moment is realized by the presence of police surrounding their hotel room, where their dreamy fantasy of a happy everafter becomes coopted by a deathly serious reality, challenging their survival instincts and their will to live as the noose is tightened.  The finale has a dreamlike texture to it, as they head for the top of a mountain, breaking through police barricades, with Bart eventually dragging Laurie through some rough terrain, ending up hiding in the weeds of a swamp engulfed in fog, where they can’t see but can only hear the approaching police dragnet, leaving them no avenue of escape, literally a THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) blaze of glory moment as their freedom comes to a quick end and their doomed dream is over, Eddie Muller's afterword to "Gun Crazy" (1950) on TCM "Noir Alley" YouTube (5:00). 

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