GUN CRAZY: Blu-ray (United Artists, 1950) Warner Archive
What makes a basically decent kid grow up to become a career criminal. Is it money, infamy, or the love of a truly psychotic femme fatale? According to director, Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950, and also intermittently recognized as ‘Deadly is the Female’), it’s the latter elixir, emanating like a powerful hallucinogenic and working its corruptible black magic on the unsuspecting country wiles of John Dall’s crime spree-prone young man. We should not entirely blame Peggy Cummins’ busty and blonde cowgirl/sideshow performer, Annie Laurie Starr for Bart Tare’s downfall. Long before Bart ever crossed paths with this rootin’/tootin’/shootin’ young lass he illustrated a penchant for petty larceny, inexplicably conjoined to his perplexing fascination with guns. But Bart (Russ Tamblyn as a spookily precocious 14-year old) was never ‘all bad’. Indeed, his busting the storefront window of a local gun merchant to steal a revolver, and his even earlier childhood desire to shoot a baby chick with his BB gun (only to be haunted by tearful remorse after observing his handiwork) are seen as virtues rather than vices, by his devoted sister, Ruby (Anabel Shaw) and boyhood chums, Dave Allister (David Bair) and Clyde Boston (Paul Frison). All three present themselves before Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky) as character witnesses after Bart is apprehended for his youthful thievery.
Gun Crazy is mostly a cautionary tale about the toxicity of passion for a really bad woman ruining the future of a mostly genuine and good-hearted man. Personally, I have always found it rather odd so many film historians consider Gun Crazy an integral part of the film noir pantheon. I tend to see it more as a ferociously intense melodrama with a few noir-ish moments interspersed. Apart from Lewis’ exploitation of the femme fatale, there is not much else about the picture to recommend it as a bona fide noir classic; Russell Harlan’s B&W cinematography only occasionally delving into the stylistic bleakness most readily associated with the movement, though never with any great interplay of chiaroscuro light and stark shadows. Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor’s screenplay (Trumbo, writing under the nom de plume Millard Kaufman to escape the blacklist) is a genuine departure from the time-honored principles of noir’s proverbial ‘man alone’; Dall’s anti-hero, more corruptible by his own stupidity where women are concerned. The script also affords Bart two ever-devoted pals; the aforementioned Dave Allister (played as an adult by Nedrick Young), eventually the editor of the town’s newspaper, and, Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis), who grows up to be the town’s sheriff, and therefore, Bart’s enemy. The noir anti-hero is usually all alone – no support system. Even so, Clyde cannot bring himself to shoot Bart. It’s no use. He knows it. We know it. Bart’s not the problem. He’s the victim.
The real appeal for noir enthusiasts is undeniably Peggy Cummins (in a part originally planned for noir veteran, Veronica Lake). Whether tricked out in her carnie/sideshow cowgirl’s gear or sporting the fashionable attire of a tight-knit sweater and beret (a look vaguely reminiscent of the real ‘Bonnie’, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, and much later to be copied by Faye Dunaway in the 1967 movie that immortalized this dynamic crime duo), Cummins’ exudes a sort of cheap and tawdry ferial scent of sexual attraction that could – and does – so easily turn the head of our inexperienced country bumpkin. Hmmm. You would think Bart’s stint in the army would have taught him something about the craftiness of this archetypal bad girl. But no, from the moment Bart encounters Laurie the two are on a collision course, destined to become wanted criminals in search of the finer things in life neither can legitimately afford. Reportedly, to achieve this on-screen chemistry, director Lewis told John Dall “Your cock's never been so hard,” before leaning into Cummins to add, “You’re a bitch in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.”
Cummins is a sadly underrated actress, I suspect, because she appears rather effortlessly herein to typify the sort of white trash female who would do just about anything to survive in a man’s world. Her manipulative skills, coupled with that insincerely ‘come hither’ glance, cast directly as opposed to the usual ‘over the shoulder’, is void of virtually all corny female subterfuge. She makes no bones about her intentions and is smitten with Bart only after he purports to favor the same stolen luxuries. But Bart really does not want to be bad, much as he desires this very wicked and warped babe. And this creates a stifling disconnect between his past and future; willingly inveigled in a life of crime even as he reconsiders what life would have been like if only he had stayed home to hoe potatoes on his sister’s farm.
Gun Crazy opens on a rain-soaked eve in the rural enclave of Hampton with fourteen-year-old Bart Tare peering into the local hardware store’s display window after hours. Just beyond his grasp, a new shiny revolver. Oh, what he couldn’t shoot if he owned that gun. And so, Bart shatters the glass with a large stone and takes what he wants. Alas, he is hardly the seasoned career criminal, slipping on wet pavement and dropping his ill-gotten gains at the feet of a nearby police officer. At trial, Judge Willoughby sympathetically listens to testimonials from Bart’s sister, Ruby and boyhood compatriots, Dave and Clyde. None, however, are able to sway the Judge in his duty. And so, Bart goes off to reform school, and then, rather valiantly to serve his country for a stint in the army. Returning from the front an expert marksman, the adult Bart is reunited with both his sister and boyhood chums, all grown up and living lives of their own. Clyde and Dave elect to take Bart out for a night at the carnival to celebrate. Alas, this will be the last camaraderie for the boys as Bart is introduced to sideshow sharp shooter, Annie Laurie Starr. Almost immediately, she catches Bart’s eye, much to the chagrin of her boss, Packett (Berry Kroeger), who desires her for himself.
Accepting – and winning – a wager to outshoot the act, Bart is wooed by Laurie to join up with the show. This does not sit well with Packett, who tries to break up their growing mutual attraction by divulging an insidious chapter from the girl’s past. But it makes no difference to Bart whether or not Laurie might have killed a man. He is already poisoned with the prospect of possessing her. Hence, when Packett tries to force himself on Laurie, Bart valiantly intervenes, threatening to pull the trigger himself. Packett coolly fires the couple and Bart almost immediately, and rather naively proposes marriage. The couple are wed in a cheap ceremony without family or friends, Laurie forewarning Bart that she is ‘bad…but will try to be good’ for his sake. For a while, Laurie lives up to her end of the bargain…at least, until the money holds out. But a Vegas-styled honeymoon is cruel on their savings and Bart quickly realizes they do not have enough money to get by for much longer. At this juncture, Laurie proposes an ultimatum; either Bart joins her in a life of crime or she will divorce him. Very reluctantly, and with jangled nerves, Bart partakes of several petty robberies. The couple holds up seedy motels, gas stations, corner and liquor stores.
In the back of his mind, Bart plans to squirrel away this cash for an early retirement, possibly to Mexico. But Laurie likes to spend what they have – on dinners, and dancing and expensive furs. So, more robberies are necessary to keep her in the manner to which she is fast becoming accustomed. Bart and Laurie get corresponding jobs at the Armor Meat Packer’s plant – she, as a stenographer to payroll manager, Miss Augustine Sifert (Anne O’Neal); he, as one of the meat cutters in the vast warehouse facilities. It isn’t long before the two hatch a plot to hold up their employer and make off with enough cold cash to set them up for good. Too bad even the best laid criminal plans are never entirely foolproof. Although Bart and Laurie manage to confine Sifert in the corner office at gunpoint while they fast empty out the company’s coffers, Laurie murders her boss in cold blood after Sifert pulls the emergency alarm to alert police of the holdup. Laurie and Bart take off in a stolen car, pursued by police. At the last possible moment, Bart shoots out the cop car’s tires, forcing them off the side of the road.
It appears as though the couple are home free. Ah, but then they make the terrible mistake of attempting to spend their loot on a night’s diversions at the boardwalk dance hall. The ticket seller recognizes the serial numbers on the bill Bart has used to pay for their entrance as part of the stolen moneys and alerts the police. In desperate need of other funds, Bart and Laurie hold up a grocery store, Bart narrowly preventing Laurie from murdering the defenseless clerk. Sometime later, he reads about Sifert’s murder in the papers and, thanks to Packett, finds mug shots of him and Laurie plastered across the front pages of the local newspaper. Now wanted as national fugitives, Bart is more determined than ever to escape and start their lives anew without the pall of being branded wanted criminals. Originally, Bart and Laurie had agreed to split up for a while. To each other’s ever-lasting detriment, both quickly discover they cannot bear the prospect of remaining separated, even for a moment. Now, the FBI launch an intense manhunt for the couple. And yet, thanks to some clever disguises, Bart and Laurie still manage to outfox the locals, passing effortlessly in and out of roadblocks. Regrettably, time runs out. Forced to abandoned their car in the woods, Bart and Laurie scamper on foot, making it back to Ruby’s farmhouse.
While modestly grateful to see her brother again, Ruby cannot abide his chosen life of crime. Very quickly, a quiet animosity builds between Ruby and Laurie. In the meantime, Bart is confronted on Ruby’s front porch by Clyde and Dave, who have pieced together the clues, only to realize the dragnet has closed in on their one-time friend. Holding the men at gunpoint, though with no intention to shoot either of them, Bart and Laurie steal Ruby’s car. This too is later ditched in the mountains, Bart and Laurie forced to go it alone over rough terrain on foot. They find their way to a very murky bog. Too bad, Clyde and Dave know this area almost as well, catching up as they attempt one last and very ill-fated negotiation for Bart and Laurie to turn themselves in. Laurie emerges from the swamp, eyes and pistol gleaming as she vows to kill again. Unable to watch as his wife murders his best friends, Bart shoots Laurie dead and is, in turn, gunned down by one of the advancing police officers, dying only a few feet away from his one-time beloved. As Clyde and Dave look on in despair, they cannot help but wish all their lives had been very different.
Gun Crazy is a fairly entertaining programmer from United Artists; B-budgeted and expertly played by Dall and Cummins. We really have to give it to director, Joseph H. Lewis. Through his expert use of flashback and montage he manages to take the picture’s modest 1 ½ hour run time and make it seem like a far more enveloping narrative. Gun Crazy just seems a ‘bigger’ entertainment than it actually is. If there was one thing that old-time directors of these B-unit pictures knew, it was how to tell a solid – if sordid – story on limited means and still possess it with the trappings of an A-list feature. It is a genuine pity Dalton Trumbo could not have published this screen credit under his own name. The writing is among his best. Initially planned as a Monogram Studio’s release, King Brothers Productions settled on UA as its distributor, a decision affording Gun Crazy a fairly wide release, very lucrative to its bottom line. Critics too were impressed by the picture for its propellent direction and intense candor. Although the reigning Production Code prevented Lewis from illustrating the extent of Bart and Laurie’s elicit passion, he nevertheless manages, mostly through Freudian subtext and the couple’s infrequent and oft truncated leering, to get across the notion neither could survive for very long without seeing the other naked.
Gun Crazy arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive in yet another almost perfect 1080p transfer. Truth be told, the retired DVD from 2006 looked pretty spiffy. So, WAC was likely cribbing from some very solidly mastered elements to start. The B&W image is very clean and reveals vastly superior detail, especially in close-up. A few dupey-looking shots momentarily intrude on an otherwise supremely crisp visual presentation that sports excellent film grain and contrast. There are several fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement. Aside: I detected more than this on the old DVD, also – a ton of it from Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of 1940’s The Philadelphia Story that reported to be from a ‘new’ 4K scan conducted by Warner Home Video – although it suspiciously mimicked the shortcomings of Warner’s archival print struck for its own 2002 DVD release. Is WAC cutting corners on their archive releases? Not sure. Won’t comment any further, except to say, the fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement on Gun Crazy’s Blu-ray are in exactly the same spot they appeared on the 2006 DVD. So, old scan or new to Blu from flawed surviving elements? Hmmmm. Ported over from the DVD release is a superb audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, plus, the nearly hour-long documentary: Film Noir – Bringing Darkness to Light. Personally, either extra is worth the price of admission alone. Combined with this nearly perfect transfer, Gun Crazy is a definite ‘must have’ for any noir-loving aficionado. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)