Monday, March 26, 2018

Gun Crazy (1950)

This ultra low-budget lovers-on-the-lam picture - very loosely based on the Bonnie and Clyde saga - is the real deal. Produced outside the mainstream studio system, it it utterly unexpected and subversive.

Gun Crazy was directed by Joseph H. Lewis who never rose to A-list status. His output was strictly B. Unheralded in his time, his movies have long gained a cult following due to his ability of elevating el cheapo Poverty Row flicks to cinematic art. His sense of style was impeccable.
The movie was produced by The King Brothers who had been responsible for the 1945 runaway hit Dillinger. They were a fleabag outfit even by Poverty Row standards. According to Eddie Muller other studios considered them bottom feeders. Reviled by rivals, they were former bootleggers and hustlers who saw the movie making business as just another get-rich-quick racket. Maybe so, but they were able to score one (modest) hit after another and into the bargain produce a few minor classics.
Unfortunately, Gun Crazy was a flop upon its release and re-release and slipped through the cracks for years until its rediscovery decades later.

Working for Poverty Row meant shoestring budgets but also artistic freedom. Stylistic choices that turned out to be brilliant were often born out of the necessity of stretching a non-existent budget. In fact Gun Crazy is a marvel of economic filmmaking.
It contains one of movie history’s most celebrated robbery sequences that is documentary realism at its finest. Director Lewis removed everything except the front seats out of the getaway car, put the camera equipment in the back and shot the entire scene all in one long take with ad-libbed dialogue. We as audience are right there with him in the backseat. 

Unbeknownst to even Lewis, Gun Crazy was written by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous Hollywood 10. Trumbo had already been blacklisted - the King Brothers hired him just before he was shipped off to prison - and credited Millard Kaufman functioned as his front writer. Trumbo’s credit was only restored after his death.

The plot of Gun Crazy is quite simple. Boy meets gun meets girl with gun. From his earliest childhood days Bart Tare (John Dall) has been obsessed with guns. After a stint in reform school for trying to steal one as an adolescent, Bart comes home, his obsession intact. His friends take him to a traveling carnival show - the natural habitat of freaks and geeks. There he meets Miss Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), dressed in a sexy cowgirl outfit, and shooting cigarettes out of her assistant’s mouth with a six-shooter. Bart’s got it bad. They get married, hit the road, money runs out and now what? They drift into a career as bank robbers. The cops catch on to them pretty fast and soon they can add murder to their rap sheet. They’re wanted in several states and so they decide to pull one last big heist before retiring to Mexico. Guess how this is going to end.

The movie starts off slowly and suffers from the lengthy prologue delving deep into Bart’s past. I understand it’s necessary for the audience to get an insight into Bart’s mental state, but the backstory is a bit on the corny side, clunky and preachy, there to play up sympathy, most notably in the trial sequence. But it’s a minor gripe.
As a little boy Bart mistakenly killed a tiny baby chick with his BB gun and it traumatized him. This is not what he wanted to do. The movie makes it abundantly clear that Bart likes to shoot, but cannot take the life of a living being, human or animal. He just likes to fire off rounds. It’s the only thing he’s ever been good at. Later, as a criminal, he still can’t bring himself to kill, even if his life might depend on it. There is a moral core to Bart. Understanding the dichotomy in his strange fixation is the key to his character.

When Laurie enters the scene guns a-blazing, the movie finally takes off. Bart has found a kindred spirit. She’s a rather proletarian femme fatale, not too glamorous, a bit rough around the edges and so just right for him. Bart has always been a fish out of water, he’s socially awkward and it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe he’s never had a girl-friend before. The second he lays eyes on her showing off her figure and her shooting skills no power on earth can keep him from her.
Laurie challenges him to a duel and rarely ever did the 50s see such a blatant display of eroticism on screen, fully clothed though. They shoot it out and it’s like striking a match in a gunpowder factory. There’s even a scene where Laurie shoots between her legs. Director Lewis gave his actors a rather crude but effective instruction to do the scene: 
”I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions”. 
Lewis got what he wanted. This is not just a shooting contest, it’s foreplay, or maybe more than that.

Noir has always been a genre of transgressive subtexts and perverted psychology. In Gun Crazy not only is crime presented as glamorous, but violence is eroticized. The movie relates shooting and later crime to the thrill of sex, thus flaunting the Production Code mightily. Oh, the joys of pulpy Freudianism.

Poverty Row could get away with this as they were flying somewhat under the commercial radar. They were much less under the microscope of the guardians of morality than the big studios. Besides that, Trumbo - like any good writer - had a knack for writing around the Code while technically working within its constraints.

A short time later, Bart and Laurie leave the carnival. Bart wants to take a regular job for $40 a week but the straight life has no allure for Laurie. She wants to live a little and living doesn’t mean a tenement with peeling plaster and a hot plate in the corner. 
“I want things…big things… I want a guy with spirit and guts… a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”
She also gives Bart the obligatory “I’m no good” speech - known from so many other Noirs - and tells him that she’s killed a man before. But in Noir red flags go unheeded. Like any other Noir hero, when trouble comes knocking on the door, he embraces it whole-heartedly.

Laurie knows exactly how to work her man, black stockings, bedroom eyes and all. She wrote the book on that. She used sex to get her man and now uses her man to get her what she wants. Faced with the possibility of losing Laurie, Bart gives in. He’s transferred his obsession from guns to a woman who has one. She’s all he ever wanted and any kind of good sense he ever had goes out of the window. He’ll follow her straight to the gates of hell. “We go together Laurie, I don’t know why, like guns and ammunition go together.” Another nice guy sucker who can’t keep his libido under control. 

Laurie wants to go straight, really she does, but it’s no good. Her love for thrills gets in the way and it’s something she can’t help. Deep down this is who she is. Cool as a cucumber she suggests armed robbery. The road to Easy Street is paved with bad intentions.

And so the ballad of Laurie and Bart begins. Their cross-country crime spree plays like an extended honeymoon thrill ride. What we have here is the Noir version of the Road Movie.
Road Movies are always about a quest. A quest for escape from the daily grind, a quest to escape to a better future. The protagonist changes and grows over the course of his journey and more often than not there's a pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow. Of course Gun Crazy being Noir the quest can only be a warped one. Bart and Laurie no doubt chase rainbows but Noir is the world of last gambles, last chances and salvation that never comes.

The moment Bart makes his decision to stay with Laurie, it’s clear that they’re doomed. With each job they pull they come closer to catastrophe, no matter how much they try to even the odds. There’s no way out for the star-crossed lovers.

It takes Bart quite a while to figure out just how far Laurie is willing to go to get what she wants. When he finally gets the full picture, he doesn’t care anymore. He knows she’s going to be his ruin. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even though John Dall was far from being Hollywood’s greatest actor, the role of Bart fits him perfectly. Hitchcock supposedly chose him for Rope because of his inherently weak quality. Hitch was on to something. Bart is a simple guy, lanky, awkward, with a big goofy grin. He’s a drifter, diffident and indecisive… until he meets his guiding star. Dall conveys Bart’s aimlessness very well.
UK import Peggy Cummins is dynamite. After a few Hollywood disappointments she was back on her way to the UK and unfortunately Gun Crazy was to be her Hollywood swan song. Clearly that was Hollywood’s loss.

As opposed to Bart, we never find out what makes Laurie tick. We never get to know the root of her obsession with guns, we only see the manifestations of it. There simply is a kink in her character. She’s hot-tempered, amoral and slightly unhinged. Like a child she must have what she sees. 
The single worst thing in the world for a girl like her is boredom. The robberies are really not so much about money, they provide a rush for her. On top of that, she has an itchy trigger finger. She has what Bart is lacking: a true killer instinct. She not only has no compunction about killing, she likes to kill. This is how she gets her kicks. For Bart’s benefit she plays a little comedy to justify her killings, whimpering she only killed because she was frightened and lost her nerve, but one look at her face after she pulled the trigger belies that statement. There was nothing but cold purpose in her eyes, and something more…a positively feral look. Crime and killing are sexual gratification.

Their relationship is another destructive amour fou. Do they love each other? Bart no doubt loves Laurie. Does Laurie love him? She’s willing to leave him if he doesn’t want to follow her into a life of crime. But it turns out they can’t be without the other. Laurie is not a dame who milks gullible suckers for all they’re worth, she’s not looking for a chump to take the fall for her crimes. Her love for Bart is genuine which sets her apart from other femmes fatales. 
After one holdup they mean to split up for a while because the cops are looking for a couple. They simply can’t. Magically they’re pulled back together and turn their respective getaway cars around. It’s a wonderful scene, sad, poignant, tragic and romantic at the same time.

Both Laurie and Bart are misfits who have never belonged anywhere. But only Bart understands that being an outlaw means being an outcast. 
The traditional postwar dream of a happy home life, stable job and a picket fence is not for them, especially not for Laurie. We just have to look at the contempt in her eyes when she meets Bart’s sister, now a domestic drudge, and her three little children. It’s Lewis’ little stab at matrimony. Ruby is not a glowing recommendation for married life. The reward for living a decent life is near poverty.

Laurie believes that one last big score will get them the money to retire to Mexico to buy a farm and, Bart suggests, raise some kids. They stick up the payroll department at a meat-packing plant, but Laurie’s itchy trigger finger leaves two people dead. Bart should have known that his Laurie is not the domestic type. The carny clown warned him. Bart was simply "born dumb" about women.

As fugitives they return to Bart’s hometown where they encounter his childhood friends again. The story arc now comes full circle. Bart and Laurie have come to the end of the road and make their last stand out in a swamp. Laurie is hysterical and out for blood when the cops and Bart’s friends arrive: “I'll KILL YOU! I'll KILL YOU!” Laurie can’t stop herself. Bart knows he has to protect others from her. She would go on killing. As a child he killed the baby chick against his better nature and now tragically he has to shoot the only thing he ever loved. She is his first and only kill. Seconds later the cops shoot him dead. The lovers are united in death.

The movie has a trashy yet wonderfully romantic allure to it. There’s glamour in being young and wild and bad. B-pictures show the true spirit of Noir: made on a dime and boldly going where no-one else would go, these tawdry little gems get it exactly right. They get down and dirty and make no excuse for it.

Of course the transgressors have to pay for their sins in the end as a concession to the Production Code, but it’s a small price to pay for a wild ride.


  1. I love this film so much. Peggy Cummins is something else in this flick. How she never ended up becoming a major star after this is beyond me.

    The first scene where they meet one another is so sexy and it pushes the boundaries I think of what was seen in the code era. Maddy

    1. Hi Maddy, she didn't become a bigger star because nobody who worked for Poverty Row became a star, unfortunately. The only studio there who had anything resembling big names was Republic, and they were never wholly a Poverty Row outfit.

      Cummins made a lot of other good films too. I like Moss Rose, and there's a British film with her and Edward G. Robinson, My Daughter Joy, I'm trying to track down. I liked her in Hell Drivers, with my favorite man, Stanley Baker.

  2. I like your stamping this movie with the label "real deal". It is that. The first time I watched it, I think my jaw hit the floor and stayed there. Great work by all involved, and you never know where you will find such things. Movie fans certainly know that a big budget is no guarantee.

    1. I've been looking more and more into Poverty Row pictures. Yes, there are many duds obviously but so often you find an unexpected gem.

  3. Another great review J, thanks for the good read,

  4. I saw this movie some years back on TV and couldn't believe my eyes. It was one of the wildest movies I'd ever seen. My eyes bulged and I laughed out loud at the chick when when she went "gun crazy" and wanted to blast everyone with that wild look in her eyes. When she wanted to kill the baby that's when I thought now this is really over the top crazy. I loved it.

    And the scene of them driving in their car looking for a parking space to commit a crime as you the audience seemed to be in the back seat with them. Fantastic. Really loved this movie, I bought the DVD some years back as soon as it was released. When I want to show someone a good example of great film making and wild movie experience to boot, this is the one I choose.

    1. Hi Lee, thanks for the comment. Don't know if I've seen you on other classic film sites.
      The bank robbery scene with the car and the camera in the back is rightfully cited as one of the best.

      If you like Lewis, The Big Combo is a great movie, though I'm sure you know it already.

  5. Just discovered your site yesterday, thanks to Laura's referral. I visit other noir sites but don't comment. I'm a regular commenter on Toby's '50's Westerns site and comment on Laura's site too. Love all kinds of old movies and classic '50's to '60's TV too. I've found anytime I watch an old movie or TV show I never regret the time spent, I can't say the same for new movies (anything from late '60's to present). I do watch some new movies and I like some, but most are trash and I always wish I hadn't wasted my time on them.

    You're doing a great job here, I'll vist again.

    1. Well, I'm glad you stopped by. I'm getting more and more into 50s television, it's a bit harder to find than films.

      I still like movies up the early 90s, after that I'm not too interested anymore.

  6. Continuing my trawl through your back pages-firstly I must add a wonderful essay.
    I would however beg to differ that Gun Crazy is a poverty row picture or that the King Brothers
    were indeed a "flea bag" outfit especially with Gun Crazy costing around $450,000.
    PRC,Screen Guild and the like were indeed flea bag outfits but even they turned out the occasional
    gem. I think Peggy's career stalled when she returned to the UK because she made too many weak
    comedies although she was in the cult classic Night Of The Demon. Hell Drivers is also very good,
    and always fine to encounter another Stanley Baker admirer is he really your fave male actor..if! Baker in the late 50's early 60's just made a whole string of sensational movies:
    Hell Drivers,Yesterday's Enemy,Violent Playground,Hell Is A City,The Criminal among others.
    What a wonderful James Bond he would have made. One of my "most wanted" films on Blu Ray is
    Where's Jack an 18th century thriller that was a pet project for Stanley that sadly failed to
    find an audience.UK singer Tommy Steele played the lead and Stanley was the heavy and it's one
    of his finest performances ever.
    Another Cummins film worth tracking down is the Noirish Escape with Rex Harrison.
    Another very good King Brothers Noir is Southside 1-1000 there is a Warner Archive DVD but the
    quality is not too hot.
    I'm glad Lee above mentioned Toby's- blogs 50's Westerns and The Hannibal 8 I "invade" them all
    the time; but to a point; Toby seems to put up with me..a really nice guy.
    Apart from that I'm pretty regular over at Colin's and glad that you are on board too.
    There are so many superb blogs out there but the time element prevents me contributing,possibly
    in most cases just as well.

    1. Hi there, I'll still call them a fleabag outfit because really, they were Poverty Row. Actually I don't even mean it as an insult. As with the big studios, there was certainly a ranking, with PRC definitively at the bottom. So many little gems were produced by PR studios which are now considered sort of classics, at least cult classics. But that didn't mean when they came out they were anything other than "cannon fodder", cheaply produced for the second half of the double bill.
      I'm not saying the King Brothers made bad movies, they didn't at all and neither did other PR studios. We could be generous and call them Independents, but frankly I prefer PR.

      Peggy Cummins should have had a better career. She was supposed to be in Forever Amber but that didn't happen. I don't think after that her Hollywood career ever recovered if it was actually that great to begin with.

      Yes, I'm a Stanley Baker fan ever since I saw Zulu, which I love. My favorite though is Hell is a City.

  7. Just to backtrack on your earlier comment Peggy Cummins never worked for poverty row since
    she became a leading lady. As mentioned before she made Escape not long before Gun Crazy and
    in this class A Fox production her leading man was Rex Harrison hardly a poverty row star.
    Fox were grooming her for stardom but as mentioned before her potential career was derailed by
    appearing in too many very average British comedy films. One very good Brit Flick was Street
    Corner an early entry in the female cops genre with a woman director as well. 28 year old Peggy
    is most convincing as an 18 year old young mother who gets mixed up with gangsters.
    This is in stark contrast to the up-market rather "county" woman that she played in Escape-
    Peggy certainly had range!
    As far as no actress from Poverty Row ever becoming a major star check out the early films of
    Rita Hayworth especially the B Westerns that she made as Rita Cansino.
    As far as The King Brothers being a flea bag outfit their production CARNIVAL STORY starred
    Anne Baxter,Steve Cochran and George Nader hardly a B cast furthermore the King's THE BRAVE
    ONE won an Oscar-something flea bag outfits never did!
    So Margot,as you can tell,I DO know how to whistle which leads me to the fabulous Whistler
    movies-certainly B movies but totally wonderful as well-please check them out if you have not
    done so already.

    1. I'd still call Peggy Cummins a B movie star, and again that is no slight. Yes, she was in Fox's Moss Rose and Escape (which I unfortunately don't know), but really I don't think she can be called a leading lady in the sense of more famous stars. At best we can say Fox tried and she didn't take off unfortunately. Which is sad.

      You are correct about Rita Hayworth of course. I should say barely anyone working for PR became a star, though it was the training ground for directors such as Anthony Mann and Sam Fuller.

      A special case can be made for Republic, never wholly a PR outfit. Especially once they had Wayne and John Ford they made the jump to the minor studios.

      I don't know Carnival Story but Steve Cochran and George Nader were strictly B. I have to check the movie out.

  8. Margot,I strongly suggest that you check out the aforementioned King Brothers production
    Call Southside 1-1000 a nifty programmer and certainly not a "flea bag" enterprise.
    As I stated the Warner Archive is not a stellar transfer and I'd buy a remastered Blu Ray in a
    heartbeat. Call Southside 1-1000 is a sort of second string T Men but still pretty darn good.
    Andrea King scores as the Femme Fatale of the piece. There's a neat in joke at the start of the
    film where we see a cinema is showing Red River a nod to DOP Russell Harlan and editor Christian
    Nyby. I might add that prior to shooting Gun Crazy Harlan had just shot Red River,hardly someone
    a flea bag outfit would employ. :)

    1. Somehow I always missed Call Southside 1-1000.
      I'm not so sure about Harlan. John Alton worked for Eagle Lion a lot, together with Anthony Mann. Both of them then moved up. Yes, another one who was lucky.

  9. It was with some trepidation that I dared to challenge Margot Shelby;in fact I almost wimped
    out of the whole thing. At least we have some common ground,and yes I prefer to call them
    independents,unless we are talking PRC or Lippert then PR is fine by me.
    I would call Cochran and Nader B list stars but not B movie stars-hope that's OK.
    I regard the likes of Tom Conway and Kent Taylor as true B Movie stars.
    Actually Nader was riding quiet high at Universal for a while and there are a couple of his
    Noirs that I'd love to see-MAN AFRAID;APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW.Finally Nader's sole Brit Noir
    NOWHERE TO GO is well worth tracking down.

    1. Silly person! A while ago Barry Lane got upset that I called Eagle Lion PR, which I didn't really, I called it humble. As opposed to the major and minor studios. I like the term PR, it has flair.

      I can see that it may be better to call some of them Independents, but when I read about them they are often lumped together as PR. If that is really correct I don't know. We can't compare Republic with Lippert for example. That's insulting to Republic.

      On a different note, what's the difference between B list stars and B movie stars?
      I haven't seen many of Nader's movies, I should seek them out.

  10. I adore Barry Lane's contributions,yep! he can be prickly and acerbic but I always find
    his comments a bit of a breath of fresh air-us old movie fans sometimes get a bit too reverential
    at times,Barry deconstructs all that.He's had some interesting life and times,I think he was Louis
    Hayward's manager at one point.
    Eagle Lion sort of collapsed when they were on the verge of perhaps greater things. Veteran producer
    Harry Sherman (Ramrod,Four Faces West) was about to embark on a series of big budget color
    Westerns with them; headlining Joel McCrea,Eagle Lions demise and Sherman's passing scuppered all
    that. Many of the Eagle Lion crew went onto greater things,the already mentioned Mann and Alton.
    Producer/Directors like Arthur Gardner,Arnold Laven (Gardner Levy Laven) Aubrey Schenek (Bel Air)
    Bryan Foy and Crane Wilbur and others.Foy and Wilbur had great success at Warners including the
    mega smash House Of Wax.Bel Air made some interesting films and co-founder Howard Koch eventually
    ended up running Paramount. BTW I've never seen Bel Air's Shield For Murder,everyone tells me how
    great it is...another film on the must track down list.
    B Movie stars normally made 60 minute B Movies and occasionally had supporting roles in A Movies.
    I'm thinking here Kent Taylor,Tom Conway,Willard Parker,Jeff Morrow-while others like Richard
    Travis were strictly B as was I guess Tom Neal. Wayne Morris was groomed as a leading man
    by Warners but returning from the war (with a most impressive war record,I might add) he ended up
    in B Movie hell-bottom of the barrel Brit B's and the like.
    Perhaps B list is the wrong term perhaps second string stars would be more to the point,at any rate
    Cochran is certainly a cut above the likes of Taylor and Neal. Sadly most of Nader's best Universal
    films remain unreleased even on DVD I would certainly class him as a second string star but above
    a B movie star-certainly not a Tom Conway or Willard Parker.
    For more on Crane Wilbur and other stuff you may like to google
    Rupert Pupkin Speaks-John Knight-2017 Discoveries.

    1. Yes, Barry's contributions are good if indeed often acerbic. It's true that old movie fans can be overly reverential.

      Shield for Murder is pretty good, not great but good. I have an old review of it somewhere that I must revamp.

      Now I understand the difference you made about B movie stars and B list. Cochran could have become A list I believe, had it not been for his out of control private life. I'll check out your list on Rupert's blog.