John Dall and Peggy Cummins are Gun Crazy!
Gun Crazy is a tough little, fast-paced entry in the film noir genre that plays more like an early thirties gangster picture. Originally titled Deadly Is the Female, it boasts a taut screenplay by MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo (using the pseudonym Millard Kaufman) and energetic direction by Joseph H. Lewis. It tells the story of Bart and Annie (think Bonnie & Clyde) a young couple that commits a string of ever more daring robberies, escalating to a climactic showdown in a foggy swamp somewhere in the mountains of California.
The story begins with a teenaged Bart (played by a 14-year-old Russ Tamblyn) breaking a store window to steal some guns. He gets caught and we next see him before a judge. His older sister, with whom he lives, pleads to keep him out of reform school. We are shown Bart at age seven killing a baby chick with his first BB gun and feeling remorse. A couple of his friends testify about the time he refused to shoot a mountain lion even though a reward had been offered for it. In short Bart is gun crazy but has much respect for life.
Bart gets sent to a home for boys and then does time in the military. Upon his return he reunites with his boyhood chums and the three of them attend a carnival that happens to be in town. He falls for the sharp-shooting Annie and takes a job as her fellow trick shooter. Time passes and Bart and Annie fall in love, leave the carnival, and get married. A bored Annie wants a life of thrills and easy money. She threatens to leave Bart unless he agrees to commit robberies with her, and so their crime spree begins.
One thing that makes this a great action movie is the fact that most of it is shot on location in actual cars. Very little rear projection is used. A camera mounted in the back seat allows us to watch the actors driving around. One bank robbery scene has become legendary because only the actors and crew knew what was going on. Bart tells Annie he hopes they find a parking space and John Dall, the actor, really meant it. At the end of the scene when the alarm goes off a passerby on the street, not realizing that a movie was being filmed, can be heard yelling about the bank being robbed.
John Dall and Peggy Cummins have great chemistry together and deliver the somewhat clichéd dialogue like old pros. He makes the perfect average Joe, so blindly in love that he allows his woman to drag him down into a quagmire of violence and crime. When he reads in the paper that Annie actually killed two people during their last job (she had lied and told him she had fired shots only to frighten them) he blurts out, “Two people dead, just so we can live without working!” Peggy as Annie is the perfect bad girl. She wants to LIVE! Or as she tells her man, “Bart, I've been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I'm gonna start kicking back.”
Gun Crazy never lets up until the credits roll.
Peggy Cummins and John Dall are Gun Crazy
I am not sure what it is, but there is something really sexy about a hot chick with a gun. When we first meet Annie she is a sharp shooter in a carnival. The director has the camera set up low, so we get a great view of her figure and nice little derriere. She and Bart have eyes for each other from their first meeting.
It is the heat between the two that really makes the film work. As Patrick wrote, John Dall and Peggy Cummins have great chemistry together. Annie's boss comments to her, "I saw the two of you, the way you were looking at each other tonight, like a couple of wild animals."
Bart and Annie each have a dark side. Bart confesses his past sin of grand larceny to Annie as if getting a huge weight off his chest. Annie is entirely unfazed by his revelation as her past is far worse.
As the film progresses, we learn that Annie is very unstable. It is she who keeps encouraging Bart to follow a life of crime. He loves her and will do whatever she wants. Had she been willing to settle down and raise a family, he would have. She is the snake in the garden and he the willing follower. Thus the original title of Deadly Is the Female.
Patrick mentioned the dialogue and one line really stood out, and not in a good way. Twice when describing how their relationship works, Bart poetically says to Annie, "We go together, like guns and ammunition go together."
Clearly influenced by the story of Bonnie and Clyde, Gun Crazy is a quick paced story of a disturbed married couple on a fast path to destruction.
Peggy Cummins and John Dall in Gun Crazy.
Despite my brothers hearty recommendations of this film, I watched it with some skepticism. Maybe it was the title. Gun Crazy sounds too pulpy and a little cheesy.
The overly melodramatic opening certainly did nothing to appease my worries. Apart from showing that Bart had a sister and two close childhood friends in his hometown, it isn't needed. It could have opened with his return from the army and his meeting with Laurie at the circus. That's when the story really gets going and from that point on I am in agreement with my brothers that this is an entertaining tale.
Clearly the story of Bart and Laurie was influenced by the story of Bonnie and Clyde, but in turn, the 1967 film version of Bonnie and Clyde was obviously influenced by this movie. Even Faye Dunaway's clothes seem to be taken straight from Peggy Cummins wardrobe, most notably is their character's equal penchant for berets, a detail that Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn reportedly included as a direct homage to this film. You can see echoes of Gun Crazy in other movies as well, such as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.
What's interesting about the way the story is presented is that it still retains many of the elements of a 1940s era film noir, while also utilizing what would become known as French New Wave, with its long tracking shots and improvised dialogue, which is most noticeable in the bank robbery scene that Patrick mentioned. And yet the whole thing is packaged as a b-movie and was clearly made on the cheap with a relatively unknown cast. It's a scrambled mix of styles that probably shouldn't work, but somehow does anyway.
The film flopped at the box office upon its initial release, under the name Deadly is the Female, and so was renamed and remarketed to play up the pulpier side of the story. It still failed to find an audience, but has since gained something of a cult following. You can count me among its appreciators.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1950)