GUN CRAZY (1950, Dir. Joseph H. Lewis)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) is one of the best of the many noir films that deal with the motif of a young couple on the run from the law, a motif that was at least partly inspired by the real-life stories of couples such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and that is perhaps most widely associated in film with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Indeed, Gun Crazy was for years regarded as important largely as a forerunner of Penn’s film. However, as Silver and Macek note, “the prototypical noir style, grim narrative, and pervasive aura of eroticism in Gun Crazy have given it a growing reputation as a key film of the noir cycle” in its own right (118). Gun Crazy, moreover, is distinct from Bonnie and Clyde—and frompredecessors such as Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948)—in that the dominant figure in its central couple is the woman, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), who is clearly more ruthless and deadly than the man, kind-hearted Bart Tare (John Dall). (Indeed, this film is also known by the alternative title of as Deadly Is the Female, and with good reason.) Written in part by the blacklisted (and uncredited) Dalton Trumbo, whose situation might have contributed to the film’s note of despair, Gun Crazy focuses on the role played by guns in the criminal careers of its protagonists, suggesting that their fascination with guns is key to their downfall.

The film begins when Bart is a child, sent to a reform school after he breaks a store window in order to steal a gun, even though he is stipulated to opposed to the violent use of guns. After he reaches adulthood and does a stint in the military as a marksman, Bart returns home and attends a traveling carnival with his boyhood friends, Dave (Nedrick Young) and Clyde (Harry Lewis). The exotic attractions of this carnival are clearly meant to suggest a life of adventure and excitement of a kind few in this small town ever really experience, establishing a vision of the kind of life that Bart will later seek through crime. One of these attractions is a sharpshooting show starring Laurie, whose dexterity with guns is matched by Bart’s, establishing an immediate connection between the two of them.

They soon marry. Annie, however, insists that she must have more from life than Tare can make at the modest honest jobs that are available to him, sending them off into a life of crime that accelerates into more and more serious transgressions, despite Bart’s reluctance. In the end, the two of them are cornered in a swamp as a posse hunts them down. Bart is then forced to shoot Laurie as she is about to shoot Dave and Clyde, who are with the posse but hope to convince Bart and Laurie to give themselves up. Laurie thus becomes the only person actually killed by Bart in the film. This shooting, meanwhile, triggers a hail of gunfire in which he is killed as well.

Bart Tare shown in the crowd viewing belly dancers performing at a carnival in “Gun Crazy.” This “exotic” image represents the life of adventure and excitement that Bart and Laurie will later seek through crime.

The relatively simple narrative of Gun Crazy is enriched by the inclusion of a number of key film noir techniques, as well as elements derived from other genres, especially the Western. Thus, though she is introduced as hailing from London, England,[1] Annie wears a cowgirl outfit during her sharpshooting stage show, while Bart also wears a Wild West outfit when he briefly joins the show, and he and Laurie later even sometimes wear their Western outfits during robberies. Meanwhile, Laurie’s name is clearly meant to invoke a combination of Annie Oakley and Belle Starr, the two most famous markswomen of the Old West.[2] The eventual crime spree of Bart and Laurie, meanwhile, not only recalls the career of Bonnie and Clyde, but also those of numerous Wild West outlaws.

Laurie in her Wild West outfit.

This evocation of the Western is highly appropriate, given the prominence of guns in the culture of the Old West. But it is even more appropriate given the central role played by the prominence of guns in the West—and, particularly, in the Western film genre—in the evolution of the American national identity. In his monumental three-volume study of the role played by the Western frontier in this evolution, Richard Slotkin tellingly entitles the third volume, which deals with the movie Western, Gunfighter Nation. Here, he notes how the typical matter of the classic Western contributes to a national narrative in which the United States takes on an identity as the nation that battles (and defeats) uncivilized others in “savage wars.” Thus, the American national identity is built not only on a sense of superiority to others, but on the violent assertion of that superiority. In addition, Slotkin argues that, after 1947, the Western began to turn in new, darker directions, many of which were aligned with film noir. Moreover, he argues that the entire phenomenon of pulp crime fiction arises from the same “literary-mythic tradition” as the Western. Both phenomena, for him, address “the traditional concept of democratic heroism,” but the pulp novel and the films it helped inspire attempt to adapt “the traditional concept of democratic heroism, based on the Myth of the Frontier, to a post-Frontier America” (194). Slotkin does not mention Gun Crazy, but this film clearly engages with many of his main ideas, even though the Production Code dictated that it had to do so in a rather oblique way. Still, it is clear that the subtext of this film has to do with the way in which American history has been steeped in violence and in which guns have been crucial to this phenomenon. Even today, more than half a century after Gun Crazy, most of the world is mystified and perplexed by the American mania for gun ownership.

Slotkin also pays significant attention to the importance of the Wild West show in the development of this notion of America as a gunfighter nation, providing a gloss on the way in which Laurie and Bart begin their criminal adventures in a carnival attraction that is directly descended from such shows. Thus, the printed programs that accompanied Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show glorified guns and touted their crucial role in the taming of the West and the making of the American nation. One of these programs, for example, featured the text of an essay entitled “The Rifle as an Aid to Civilization,” which literally argues that American could not have existed as a nation without the aid of guns:

“The bullet is the pioneer of civilization, for it has gone hand in hand with the axe that cleared the forest, and with the family Bible and school book. Deadly as has been its mission in one sense, it has been merciful in another; for without the rifle ball we of America would not be to-day in the possession of a free and united country, and mighty in our strength” (qtd. in Slotkin 77).

Of course, the Western was the perfect genre for dramatizing the taming of the West—at gunpoint, as it were. It is here that Gun Crazy clearly deviates from the classic Western and directly anticipates later “waning of the West” films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or The Wild Bunch (1969). In those films, as in Gun Crazy, the frontier has already been tamed, and gunplay is not used to imposed order so much as it becomes a cry of protest against the stifling imposition of too much order. In Gun Crazy, as Dickos puts it, “guns answer the satisfying need to feel alive in a world that, by its very orderliness and predictability, quells this darker and highly charged impulse” (153).

Laurie and Bart soon leave carnival, however, after it becomes clear that the show’s gangsterish manager wants Laurie for himself and thinks he has a hold over her because he knows that she once killed a man in St. Louis. In addition, it has already become clear to Bart that the carnival is anything but a romantic escape from the materialistic drudgery of capitalism. The carnival, after all, is a strictly commercial enterprise, designed to fleece innocent locals of their hard-earned cash by presenting false images of adventure. As a clown who works in the carnival tells Bart shortly before his departure from the show, “Yes sir, we got the crookedest little carnival layout west of the Mississippi. Why we’ve got more ways of making suckers than we got suckers. When we pull out of this burg tomorrow morning, the natives will have nothin’ left but some old collar buttons and some rusty bobby pins.”

Leaving the carnival, Laurie and Bart seek more authentically transgressive energies as they go forth into the outside world, embarking, despite Bart’s objections that “someone might get hurt,” on a series of small-time robberies in which Bart spends much of his energy trying to prevent injuries to others, while Laurie makes it clear that she is unconcerned about the potential damage they might inflict on others. But Laurie’s ambitions run well beyond what can be achieved in petty robberies, so eventually she drags Bart into a plan to go for one last big score, after which they will retire to Mexico. At this point, Gun Crazy veers into a segment that is essentially an inserted heist film. They both get jobs at a meat packing plant as part of an elaborate plan to rob the plant’s payroll. As usual in heist films, everything goes wrong once the robbery is underway, ultimately leading to the demise of Laurie and Bart. When a woman worker (Laurie’s supervisor, in fact) at the plant pulls an alarm, disrupting the smooth execution of the robbery, Laurie shoots her dead, with a certain vindictive malice. As they escape the plant, she shoots and kills a security guard as well. They then escape together to bart’s home town (abandoning their plan to split up to throw the authorities off their trail) but are unable to carry out their plan to move on to Mexico due to the intense manhunt that eventually closes in on them and leads to their deaths.

For most observers, the most important aspect of Gun Crazy is the relationship between Laurie and Bart and the way in which it challenges conventional gender roles of the time. In some cases, this challenge is signaled in relatively subtle ways. In several scenes, for example, Laurie is shown driving while she and Bart are on the road, even though it was conventional for men to do the driving at the time—in American film and in American society.

The criminal couple in “They Live by Night.” Note how Bowie (Farley Granger) drives, while Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) dotingly leans on his shoulder.

In “Gun Crazy,” however, Laurie often drives.

When they are working in the packing plant, meanwhile, Laurie is at one point chided by her supervisor for wearing slacks to work and told that henceforth she will be expected to wear a skirt. Laurie, in fact, typically wears slacks throughout the film, suggesting the way in which she often assumes masculine roles. When Laurie later calmly shoots down this supervisor during the robbery, one suspects that she thinks of it partly as retribution for the other’s attempt to force her into a conventionally feminine position.

Laurie vengefully shoots down the supervisor who earlier criticized her for wearing slacks to work, while Bart looks helplessly back over his shoulder.

The most obvious gender reversal in Gun Crazy occurs in the way in which Laurie clearly sets the agenda for the couple, while Bart is just along for support. To an extent, of course, this situation is not that unusual in film noir, and Laurie can be seen as one of numerous femmes fatales who drive basically good men to their ruin. She is an unusual femme fatale, however, in that, while she might be able to shoot down her antagonists in cold blood, she seems to have genuine feelings for Bart—even though it is also the case that she sometimes deftly manipulates him and is willing to employ less-than-honest tactics in order to do so. Still, they share a mutual passion for each other, though it is probably also the case that this passion can’t match the intensity of the passion they feel for guns. Passions of all sorts swirl about in this film, which might account for the fact that it often seems to defy logic. Spicer sees the film as informed by “moral confusion,” but it might be more accurate to say that it transcends ordinary morality altogether (33). Borde and Chaumeton, in fact, view Gun Crazy as a kind of surrealist work that eschews logic and deftly illustrates the madness of love. Declaring the film “a sort of L’Age d’or[3] of American film noir,” they declare Gun Crazy to be “one of the extremely rare contemporary illustrations of an amour fou (in every sense of the word, of course)” (94). An “amour fou” (French for “mad love”) is a passion so strong that it drives one to irrational (and often self-destructive) behavior, and that term certainly applies to the feelings of Laurie and Bart—for each other and (especially) for guns. It is no accident, after all, that the romantic love theme that runs through the film’s soundtrack is called “Mad About You.” For Borde and Chaumeton, Gun Crazy is a film driven by forces that go beyond the rational, in which “passion, violence, eroticism are unleashed and somehow purified here by their very excess” (94).

This reading might seem a particularly French one, but it is certainly the case that Gun Crazy does seem to represent a cry of protest against a tyrannical rationalism that has stripped life of magic in the modern world. As is so often the case with film noir, the work of Max Weber—who argues that capitalism has created a rational world devoted to efficiency and stripped of magic and wonder—seems quite relevant here. Thus, while Gun Crazy might not literally qualify as a work of surrealism, it does include a number of aspects that are, one might say, inefficient, often giving it a somewhat clunky feel to twenty-first-century audiences. If only because of the constraints of the Production Code, the film probably could not depict sex and violence with the gleeful excess of many surrealist works, but it nevertheless manages to introduce a surprising amount of both for an American film made in 1950.

A little more than half an hour into the film, their honeymoon disrupted by a losing streak in Vegas, Bart rejects Laurie’s insistence that they embark on a life of crime so that they can have the resources experience the finer things in life. In that case, she concludes, issuing a clear ultimatum, “You’d better kiss me goodbye.” That she then immediately reclines appealingly on their bed constitutes a rather obvious suggestion of the sexual rewards that will be available to him if he goes along with her plan. It also suggests that Laurie is confident that Bart will succumb to her sexual allure. He then comes to the bed to kiss her, all right, but her flaring nostrils and open mouth suggest that it will not be a goodbye kiss. “Mad About You” plays in the background as the picture goes out of focus and then fades out as they begin to kiss passionately, moving immediately into a shot of a gumball machine as its glass globe is shattered by a warning shot as they begin the string of robberies that sends them inexorably along the road to ruin.

If sex thus leads immediately to violence in Gin Crazy, it is also the case that the two are sometimes inseparable in this film. Laurie clearly gets what surely amounts to a sexual thrill from the robberies they commit, while Bart’s fascination with guns seems an almost textbook illustration of Freudian notion of guns as phallic surrogates. In fact, sex and violence—especially gun violence—are inextricably interwoven throughout the film in surprisingly overt ways. Thus, Dickos notes that “in no other film has the manner of violence and sex been so effortlessly presented— and, it would appear, accepted into the noir canon without undue controversial notice” (151). Dickos futher notes that sexuality functions in the film as a “life-enhancing dimension of dangerous living—indeed, in living a short, intense life unto quick death” (152). The agenda of Laurie and Bart (which is really just the agenda of Laurie) would thus seem to be driven by much the same logic as that which motivated Nick Romano, the protagonist of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 noir film Knock on Any Door, only a year earlier: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” That such similar messages can be found in two films that are so closely contemporaneous is probably no accident: both Gun Crazy and Knock on Any Door respond to widespread anxieties in American society about rising rates of juvenile delinquency at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s. Both Laurie and Romano are driven by a nihilistic sense that life has no real meaning, so they might as well get what they can while they can any way they can. But, as Dana Polan notes (writing of Knock on Any Door), the concern about delinquency in these films also reflects anxieties about the future in general. The film’s ultimate, nightmarish, message, he argues, is that “one’s children don’t reflect back one’s place in the world but, rather, show it coming to a farcical or unbearable point of no return” (246).

Gun Crazy thus reflects a number of different anxieties, which might partly account for the fact that it has seemed to many viewers to be rather chaotic and disorganized. But this lack of smooth organization itself functions as a sort of protest against capitalist routinization in in its own refusal to adhere to the expectations well-made cinema. Bart and Laurie performing a bank robbery in Wild West garb seems almost comical today, for example, while much of the dialogue of the film seems close to ridiculous in its overt clumsiness. This is especially the case with Bart’s dialogue, which sometimes makes him seem childlike (or perhaps just really dumb). When he reads in the paper that the two people shot by Laurie during the packing plant holdup have died, Bart proclaims, “Two people dead! Just so we can live without working! Why? Why did you do it? Why do you have to murder people? Why can’t you let them live?” Laurie, thinking on her feet and performing another of the film’s reversals of conventional gender roles, responds that she did it to protect Bart, out of fear that they would have killed him if she hadn’t killed them.

Gun Crazy itself has a sort of outlaw quality. It is indeed roughly put together, despite the highly professional and adept staging and filming of scenes such as a bank robbery shot from the back seat of the getaway car or the entire sequence of the robbery in the packing plant. But these adroitly filmed scenes only increase the seeming messiness of the film, because they seem so inconsistent with some of its other, more hastily-constructed, scenes. Some of the film’s chaos is no doubt a simple result of its low budget. But even this unintentional chaos contributes to the overall impact of the film, in which intentional messiness helps to reinforce its central emphasis on irrational passion. The final, inevitable, death of the two lovers suggests that there is no place for such passion in the modern, civilized world, but the film as a whole suggests that there is also something sad about this fact, something impoverished about a world that cannot accommodate such passion.

WORKS CITED

Borde, Raymond, and Étienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953. 1955. Trans. Paul Hammond. City Lights Books, 2002.

Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.

Polan, Dana. Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940–1950. Columbia University Press, 1986.

Silver, Alain, and Carl Macek. “Gun Crazy.Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Ed. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. Rev. and exp. ed. Overlook Press, 1992. 116–19.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Longman, 2002.

NOTES


[1] Annie, however, speaks with an American accent and seems very American, suggesting that her identification as English is a bit of showbiz marketing. Oddly, though, Peggy Cummins, the actress who played the role, was born in Wales to Irish parents and began her acting career in London.

[2] Belle Starr (1848–1889) was a gun-toting outlaw, associated with the James-Younger gang. She was shot and killed at the age of 40, under mysterious circumstances. Annie Oakley (1860–1926), was a famous exhibition shooter who performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, along with her sharpshooter husband, Frank Butler. The “Laurie” in Laurie’s name might also refer to Laura Bullion (1876–1961), who was a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang in the 1890s.

[3] “L’age d’or (“The Golden Age”), a 1930 French film directed by Luis Buñuel, is one of the leading examples of surrealism in film. Works of surrealism (an avant-garde art movement that began in the 1920s) tend to defy logic while seeking to find a way of expressing deeper realities than those that can be comprehended by ordinary rational thought.