The Subject

Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy: made in 1949 and released in January of 1950 by United Artists. (Sometimes known as "Deadly Is the Female.") It has been selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Warner Home Video's 2004 DVD is out of print, but it is available in the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 1 box set.

Behind the Scenes

Gun Crazy was one of the great "B" movies of its day. Over the years, its status has risen from cult classic to legitimate classic. It was made around the same time, but slightly after, Nicholas Ray's equally great They Live by Night (1949), and inspired later movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973) and Kalifornia (1993), in addition to a "remake," Guncrazy (1992).

Director Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000) was a New Yorker who worked in "B" movies and television his whole career, though he did create a couple of other noir classics, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) and The Big Combo (1955). He was known as "Wagon Wheel Joe" from his days as a maker of "B" Westerns, mainly because he often shot scenes through the spokes of a wagon wheels. He's also known for the horror film Invisible Ghost (1941), starring Bela Lugosi. According to an article by Peter Bogdanovich, he was both personable and incorruptible.
Aside from its "B" movie origins, the movie had a great cast and crew. It came from a story by MacKinlay Kantor, who later won a Pulitzer for his novel Andersonville (1955). Kantor is credited on the screenplay with Millard Kaufman, who was a front for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (the credits have since been officially corrected). Trumbo was of course one of the most famous of all screenwriters and went on to write Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960). Russell Harlan contributed the brilliant cinematography; his great, deep-focus black-and-white work can also be sampled in films like Red River (1948) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Actor John Dall (1918-1971) was perhaps better known for playing one of two killers in Alfred Hitchcok's Rope (1948), and he later had small role in Spartacus. The beautiful Welsh-born Peggy Cummins never broke out of "B" movies, and only made one other notable film, Jacques Tourneur's horror masterpiece Night of the Demon (1957). She retired in 1964 and is still alive today.

What It's About

As a kid, Bart (John Dall) killed a small animal and felt bad about it his whole life. As a meek, mild-mannered grown up, he still loves guns and is a crack shot, but hopes never to kill another living thing. He goes to a carnival and meets the gorgeous sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and they fall instantly in love. Unfortunately, she doesn't have the same qualms about killing, and she goads him into a life of crime. Soon, they are wanted robbers and running for their lives, retreating further from the streets and into the swamp.

The Lure of the Underworld

Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. Gun Crazy is one of the most classic cases, at least on the surface. Bart is a poor dupe who shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets seduced into the underworld. But at a second glance, both Bart and Annie are really sociopaths; they're equals and opposites. In some ways Bart is actually the female of the duo (he's quiet and sensitive) and Annie is the tough, aggressive male. (Lewis reportedly cast Dall because he was gay.) They were meant for each other, and they were bound to find each other sooner or later. It's this intense bond that makes Gun Crazy so potent, even today, and even after so many imitators.

The Femme Fatale

Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. Annie is sometimes listed as a quintessential femme fatale, which is true. In the story, she's responsible for the hero's decline. She's not happy living simply and with hardly any money. She wants more and insists that the only way they can get it is to turn to crime. Why shouldn't they, when they're both so skilled with firearms? Bart is a goner, and he's tied to Annie like no other character in the history of the American cinema. He has practically no choice. His big mistake comes simply by spotting her at the carnival. Annie is probably more appealing, both as a character and as an attractive female, than most other femmes fatale, however, and this makes her perhaps more deadly. Their attraction oozes sex, which is more than you can say for Bonnie and Clyde in which Clyde is impotent.

The Look

Gun Crazy looks like a "B" movie. It's fast and cheap, but that doesn't disguise the supreme work of Harlan. He manages to sink both Bart and Annie into the middle of complex frames, surrounding them and trapping them (nowhere more so than in the swamp finale). But no discussion of Gun Crazy can get away without a mention of its astonishing single-shot, real-time bank robbery sequence. Lewis plunked his camera into he back seat of the getaway car and filmed the entire sequence with Bart running into the bank, and then back out to join Annie in the car; meanwhile, she must deal with a nosy cop.

Great Lines

"We go together, Annie. I don't know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together."

"Bart, I've been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I'm gonna start kicking back."

What Was Said

"One of the most distinguished works of art to emerge from the B movie swamp." - Dave Kehr

"Script points up the physical attraction between Dall and Cummins but, despite the emphasis, it is curiously cold and lacking in genuine emotions. Fault is in the writing and direction, both staying on the surface and never getting underneath the characters." - Variety

"Above all, the picture is handled with terrific verve by Lewis: very bold framing, deep focus, and a single-take bank robbery seen from the back of the car." - David Thomson

"In its B-picture way, it has a fascinating crumminess." - Pauline Kael

"The director's one enduring masterpiece is Gun Crazy, a subtler and more moving evocation of American gun cult than the somewhat overrated Bonnie and Clyde." - Andrew Sarris
categories Cinematical