If you’re Gun Crazy, you’re going to shoot your pistols. And if you shoot your pistols, then somebody is going to get hurt. Quasi-sociological accounts of how kids turn to crime are fine, even if they explain nothing. Gun Crazy (1950) an outlaw-couple thriller and film noir, has titillation and education in the right balance. Tearaway good-kid-at-heart Bart Tare is played by John Dall but it’s Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr who calls the shots. The message is that it’s the broads, not the rods that are the fatal force.
Popular psychoanalysis sneaked into the movies in the 1930s — for which see comedies like Bombshell (1933) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the 1940s, with the addition of a whole lot of shell shock, and the concerted public push towards victory that World War Two inspired, psychoanalytic themes became more intense and leaked out of comedy into other genres.
Good noir reflects this and always features a vague and polymorphous sexuality that everybody at the time could project their own sexual visions on to. On top of that, there were also specific mental-illness type of pictures, such as The Snake Pit (1948).
Gun Crazy is a great example of how this stuff was vulgarised. First, the hero Bart is presented as crazy in the technical sense — he’s not just an enthusiast. The opening of the film tells Bart’s early life story, through which he repeats his love for guns. He just can’t explain it, but he loves them. As with any obsession, this leads to crime, even when he’s still at school, but a stint at reform school and in the army actually cures Bart of his mania. He leaves the army with the respect every American should have for guns, and it’s only unemployment and a dame that brings him down.
Gun Crazy isn’t Bart’s story, and nor is it the story of his beloved pistols. Gun Crazy is one of many woman-centred thrillers, and it’s the disruptive prominence of Peggy Cummins as the sharp-shootin’ Annie Laurie Starr which veer Gun Crazy into the outlaw-couple genre, the finest expression of which has always been Bonnie and Clyde. Even Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands split the blame between the male and female leads however. In Gun Crazy, it’s all about how wicked Peggy Cummins’ ass is, and John Dall just reels about haplessly, a seemingly nice guy all of a sudden robbing banks.
Somehow this imbalance is explained away with Peggy Cummin’s constant assertion: ‘I warned you I was bad.’ When she is introduced at the fairground, she is called ‘so appealing, so dangerous, so lovely to look at … the darling of London England, Miss Annie Laurie Starr.’ Although the first three make great sense, the last one is never quite explained. She doesn’t seem to be from England. Anyway, they don’t have real guns there — do they?
The early scenes of John Dall playing anti-hero Bart Tare are worth concentrating on. Bart has no father, so guns obviously fulfil this role, and as well as everything else, his gun makes him popular at school. The local judge acts as town psychoanalyst and arbiter, a powerful combination. Most of all, the audience are reminded that it’s not the killing power of guns that attracts Bart, but ‘something else’ — something surely sexual — everybody knows it.
Headgear that allows a woman light six cigarettes at once.
The opening scenes of Bart as a kid are great, but the first real clinchers come when he meets his bride-to-be, the wantonly criminal and overtly sexual Annie Laurie Starr.
And as soon as Bart announces he is going to the local fair, you know it’s all over, as fairs are synonymous with greed, corruption and theft in most all movies most all of the time.
Of course Annie Laurie Starr is magnificent, and having usurped the male right to the gun, she becomes the focal point of the film from the moment she steps on screen. The fairground scene in which they end up shooting at each other is rich indeed — and you’ll learn about ‘the crown’, doubtless a once popular device in the sharp-shooter’s repertoire, an insane device which allows the gunner to light six matches on top of a participant’s head. Probably been banned since 1950.
So the viewer knows what’s up, but Bart, who is sexually naïve, does not, and it doesn’t take Annie Laurie Starr long to cock-tease Bart into a life of violent crime. Neither of the characters is able to explain their motives, Peggy Cummin’s character being reduced to: ‘I get so scared I can’t think. I just kill.’
In part, Gun Crazy does deal with the famous North American love of arms. A complete upload of this 1950 film is available on YouTube (here) but it’s of course is impossible to find, as a casual search for the phrase ‘gun crazy’ naturally produces an embarrassment of clips. Gun Crazy is not a film that should be remade for the modern age either. Whereas Bart, the hero of Gun Crazy has a few ineffective looking pistols, a couple of BB guns and the prize of his collection — his English duelling pistols — a person crazed by guns in the present age would have something more of an arsenal. Bart’s pistols look as effective as marrows or carrots compared to what the average nut packs these days.
There is some epic stuff to watch out for in Gun Crazy, most notably the tracking shots of the bank robberies, filmed from the backs seat of the villains’ car. I don’t know if these can really be called tracking shots as the cameras doesn’t move per se — but these are still most unusual shots which you can see attracted the attention of later crime directors, especially in the 1990s.
For 1950, there is a strange quality in any camera shot that lasts this long and takes the risk of shooting in public. But these heist shots are a huge success, and easily the most enjoyable parts of the film. What makes these back-seat of the car tracking shots stand out even more is that their dialogue appears improvised, so an entirely different tone arises. Whereas for most of the time we’re used to characters delivering their prepared speeches, here we have something far more far out — actors in character, attempting to show the real lives of their roles, almost method acting their way into the robberies. These are must-see scenes. (YouTube)
For other elements of noir, Gun Crazy may be lacking. Much of Gun Crazy is shot in daylight and on location, and in middle America, thus missing out on three noir handles. On top of that Gun Crazy doesn’t go a bomb on the noir shadows either, and neither is it a particularly paranoid film. But for its emphasis on psychoanalysis, and its rampant sexual overtones, Gun Crazy is boosted up the noir list, earning a spot in the canon.
Since we enjoy such classification, it’s important to consider that only film buffs and other armchair anchorites consider Gun Crazy as film noir — for when it was released in 1950, it was very much part of a cycle of films you may wish to call the ‘social problem thriller’ which encompasses works like The Wild One and plenty Elia Kazan productions, such as On The Waterfront (1954) and The Harder They Fall (1956).
This is still America and bub — the guns are not the issue. It’s the dames that bring a guy down, as well as unemployment. Men recently released from the army feature fairly high as noir anti-heroes, and it’s their inability to grasp that heady post-war materialism that sees them bend to criminality — always against their will.
I should say that Gun Crazy was originally released with the title ‘Deadly is the Female’, which pretty much sums it up. As a social ill, women suffer in Hollywood, and in noir, it’s the guys who are actively transgressive, while the girls were there long ago, already hard embedded in their evil ways. Hold on to your guns then guys, but beware the amour fou.