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Classic Film Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

The title says a lot. Not everything, but a lot. It's a loony flick with guns.

The dangerous couple leading the picture are Bart (John Dall) and Laurie (Peggy Cummins). Bart's pistol-obsessed, back from a reform school sentence and stint in the military. He's personable, pleasant and ever-smiling. A self-proclaimed non-killing type, who just can't get enough of firing off rounds. Laurie is a carnival sharpshooter, parading as Annie Laurie Starr - a cigarette-smoking, bullet-popping blonde with walloping eyes and sword-tipped tongue. Bart falls badly for Laurie and their common interest glues them. He even joins the circus to be with her and together, they ditch the showrunner, Packett (Berry Kroeger), who has delusions of keeping Laurie under his thumb for some stuff they pulled way back when.

Unlike her new-found beau, Laurie has a taste for blood, a penchant for putting one in your chest. She admits as much to Bart when she mouths the movie's best lines outside a roadside chapel where they plan to get hitched; she says, "I've got a funny feeling that I wanna be good. I don't know. Maybe I can't, but I'm gonna try."

Broke and bound by bullets, Bart and Laurie hit the road, figuring their next meal as far as their dwindling pockets take them. Their last dime forces Laurie to press Bart to think bigger, think badder. They can't deny that they're a stick-up team waiting to pounce. Bart retreats. He worries about the deadly 'what ifs.' But Laurie works a man like she wrote the book on it. Nylon stockings reaching up under a bathrobe, hiding the goods until the time's right. Confident lips and camouflaged lust. She's tried enough to be good. She flops on the bed and invites Bart to taste her. She's got him on her team of one.

Now, they rob hotel clerks and graduate to banks, donning different outfits and personas along the way. Bart sniffs doom with each job and his nerves bounce off the screen. There are some close calls, but nothing more than a couple of well-placed shots to scare the stiffs. They keep rolling until the heat's too much and Laurie decides that they need a retirement score. So, they rip off the payroll department at a meat-packing plant and make their getaway, but not without spilling blood. Laurie pops the secretary who pulls the alarm and then wastes a cop tailing them on foot. They eventually hide out at Bart's sister's place, scaring the locals, including two of Bart's childhood buddies, who come to talk reason. Laurie has none of it, which means Bart's not turning himself in either. They trudge through the mountainside, weeds and swamps, until a Mexican standoff does them in, with Bart downing Laurie, who's bent on shooting up his old pals.



Director Joseph H. Lewis does well enough with a mediocre script by MacKinlay Kantor (based on his short story featured in a 1940 issue of The Saturday Evening Post) and Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted at the time and fronted by Millard Kaufman). We can't escape the cheesy moments or overbearing cathedral-like score, which obviously date the movie. And the script is rife with forced romantic bits. The tone is inconsistent and themes are scattershot. I get mixed-genre. I get love and loot. However, the sudden swipes of googly eyes and moral wrangling - played arrow-straight by Dall and Cummins - detract from the otherwise awesome and harsh visuals, and color the picture in a soft, unnecessary gloss. It's not great and maybe it's not even very good. But, in its best spots, Gun Crazy is damn entertaining and daring.

We seem to always be looking at what's happening like detached observers stumbling into someone else's dream. Never meant to be personally involved through camera or sound. (A good contrast to Laws of Gravity.) Lewis gives us angular point-of-views, unbroken lines of sight, drowned-out dialogue and in the most noir moment, an overhead shot of Bart and Laurie mapping their last hit by saturated lamp light, swirling in smoke from a burning cigarette resting on the table. The coolest sequence is the first bank robbery, shot in a single take entirely from the backseat of a car, starting with Laurie's drive through town, pulling up to the bank, knocking out a cop and then, speeding away. It's cinematic and knows it.

Lewis never tricks us into seeking something beyond what's in frame. When we see Laurie for the first time, toting on stage, it's a low-angle shot with her butt in the middle. She twirls and bends and shoots between her legs. Not once do we move away. That ass always the center of attention. Lewis is telling us to watch her. Keep a good eye on her because she's the picture. Cummins plays the role with seethe and superiority. It's all shameless abandon whether in glasses, skirts or pants. Her power comes from the inside.



The film's original title was Deadly Is the Female. Not exactly subtle. And not exactly ground-breaking to have a strong female catalyst, especially in movies of this type. So, you can read into this what you like. Maybe Laurie is Eve to Bart's Adam. Maybe she's sexy trash, manipulating the sap. And maybe Bart's misunderstood and misguided, suffering from an uncontrollable urge to pull a trigger. The film's corny courtroom opening, using character witnesses and flashbacks, plays up the sympathy. Maybe Bart finds his mental equal in Laurie, allowing this adventure to play out in their heads, in which they're both the good guys and the bad guys. Or maybe they're just fucking crazy.


Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and his independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production. He's also developing an original comic book series and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.