Friday Night Film Noir: Gun Crazy (1950)

It's been awhile since I put up a Friday Night Film Noir. I've still got a good dozen or so that I hope to get to by year's end. I figured I'd ease back into things with one I  screencapped a ways back but never got around to writing: Gun Crazy (1950), written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo under his alias Milard Kaufman and directed by Joe H. Lewis.

On the surface it has all the traditional elements of a noir gangster: an obsessive romantic relationship that defies rational explanation, a crime doesn't pay arc (to say the least - it's more a slow descent to irony and doom), a femme fatale, etc. But Gun Crazy goes further than many a film of its era in literalizing its sexual subtext.

Bart Tare has always had a thing for guns. He's the best shot of any of his friends, but he's unable to pull the trigger on a living thing. When a flashback reveals him in childhood, he can't shoot the mountain lion that he and his friends have spotted

When his friend takes the gun from him, Bart clenches his fist with each shot fired in close-up.

Years later when he meets Laurie Starr he's able to bluff his way along for awhile. But when they're fleeing the cops after a bank job, he becomes very self-conscious about his inability to use his gun in the way it's intended, or that she wants him to, I should say.

"Shoot! Why don't you shoot?"

Bart does shoot out one of the front tires of the cop car chasing them and they get away, but the scene is edited in such a way where there's no doubt about what's really going onTragically, he is able to pull the trigger on a person only once:

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The film opens with Bart as a youth, throwing a rock through a window to steal a beautiful pistol before getting caught and sentenced to reform school.  

Young Bart is played by Russ Tamblyn (father of Amber).
When he's called before the judge, his sister (Anabel Shaw, who looks a lot like Susan Saradon in this movie) sticks up for him, but each flashback reveals a deeper level of displacement and fixation on guns.
Such as that one time he brought a gun to school with him.

The judge sends him to reform school and as he's droning on ("It's my job here to think not only of what's good for you but what's good for the community in which you live") the camera zooms in on Bart's ear. Everything else goes out of focus, and the audio begins to resemble the Charlie Brown teacher voice (not quite that, but in that direction.) It's a nice, weird little touch.

We cut to years later - after a stint in the Army teaching sharpshooting - and Bart and his buddies go to the carnival. They buy a ticket to see the sharpshooting act, and that's where and when Bart meets Laurie.

Her highly sexualized act drives the crowd wild, and Bart is eventually called on stage to take part in a sharpshooting contest.

Bart ends up joining the carnival as part of the sharpshooting act and - despite a warning from a clown wise in the ways of love, and suckers - falls under Laurie's spell. They leave the carnival and fall into that staple of so many stories, noir or otherwise: the love/crime spree

John Dall and Peggy Cummins (Bart and Lauire) give great performances here. More on Laurie in a minute. I only know Dall from Rope, and that's not one of my favorites from the Hitchcock catalog. He's perfect in this role, though - nervous when he has to be, always intense, always playing the subtext. Well-directed, well-performed. The two leads have great chemistry.

As was the case in The Asphalt Jungle, some effective use of L.A. locations to simulate the Midwest (and elsewhere) and some fantastic soundstage work in the swamp. I was amused by something I heard on the commentary track by the always-excellent Glenn Erickson about how it would have been unthinkable at the time to ask actors to play the scene in an actual swamp in cold, muddy water, never mind the logistics in lighting it and moving the cameras, etc. 

As always, how times have changed.

Gun Crazy was first released with the title Deadly is the Female. Apparently they felt the original title of MacKinlay Kantor's short story was too much, although The Saturday Evening Post - hardly a bomb-throwing organization - published it with that title ten years before. Laurie is definitely female and definitely deadly, but Gun Crazy is such a better title. Much more immediate and much more descriptive of the work. Thankfully, that's how it's been remembered since.

When Laurie is introduced in the sharpshooting competition, she's sexy and confident and a crackshot. She and Bart establish an instant connection through their shared ability with guns. It isn't until we see Laurie with her boss/lover Packett -

Berry Kroeger, also in Act of Violence as well as lots of other stuff.

that we see the hidden side of her character.

(Laurie) "If you lay your hands on me like that again, I'll kill you."
Packett) "Like that guy you killed in St. Louis?"
"You're gonna hold that over my head for the rest of my life, aren't ya?"
"Honey, I'll make money like you want me to - big money. But it takes time. You gotta give me time."
"You'll never make money. You're a two-bit guy...
No guts, no nothing. I want action." 

Laurie uses sex to get what she wants, and what she wants is danger and excitement.
Bart's able to prevent her from killing at first.
But not during the Armour heist (the second of the film's two big set pieces).

Later when they hide out at Bart's sister's place, the composition of each scene Laurie shares with her emphasizes her specifically feminine danger to the status quo.

Something of a Trumbo trademark.

Also something of a Trumbo trademark? This risque sequence in the hotel. 

The code at the time had strict rules for any scene featuring a bed, as this one does.
If someone laid down in it, one foot had to be on the floor of all times. Yet here not only does Laurie recline entirely, Bart joins her and suggestively moves into frame.
Their kiss dissolves to their first hold-up; immediately, Bart has entered a life of crime.

Another risque element: Bart and Laurie adopt several disguises which very much puncture cinematic tropes of the time. They make their way through several roadblocks by dressing as straight, wholesome people in one scene, and as a military man and his wife in another. And with each disguise Bart adopts, his discomfort at the life they're leading and his certainty it will lead to his doom grows and grows. 

The crime sequences are stunning. The Hampton heist sequence is not the first unbroken extended sequence in American cinema, but it's certainly among the best. 

The Armour meat packing heist - where Laurie shoots her boss - is also fantastic.

It's easy to see the influence this film had on so many subsequent films, from Bonnie and Clyde to Badlands to Natural Born Killers to The Devil's Rejects. It's about as close to any of those films as anyone could have gotten away with in 1950 in Hollywood.  

Gun Crazy was not a box office hit or a critical darling; it was exclusively due to the French New Wave critics who championed it and the American New Wave critics they inspired that it endures today as a seminal film noir.

Russell Harlan had quite the c.v.


  1. This sounds great!

    "Deadly Is the Female" is a crazy title.

    I don't remember being too terribly impressed by John Dall in "Rope," either. I'm with you; it's not one of my faves from Hitch.

    I wonder if there were people who saw this movie back in the day and found themselves getting horny as hell watching it but had no idea why on account of the subtext being totally lost on them. Probably felt the need to go to confession or whatever afterward. That's kind of a happy thought.

    That screencap of the schoolkid proudly showing off his gun is something else, boy. Even worse if you take the subtext into account.

    1. I wonder that a lot with some of these subtext-heavy old flicks, all the unconscious triggering. "3 out of 4 people who went to Make Out Point after seeing this film say..." etc.