Saturday, October 5, 2013

Stubs – Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy (1950) Starring: Peggy Cummins, John Dall. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman (as a front for Dalton Trumbo), MacKinlay Kantor. Based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940. Produced by Frank King, Maurice King. Run Time: 86 minutes, Black and White. U.S., Film Noir, Crime, Drama.

As a lover of film noir, I’m a little embarrassed to say I’d never seen Gun Crazy. Even though I own a copy as part of a Warner Brother’s Film Noir Classic Collection. But for whatever reason, I had not seen the film until very recently. (As a disclaimer, we have about 1,000 films on video that we haven’t watched which is the big reason why we don't have a Netflix subscription.)

My awareness of the film grew because of TCM, which is sort of a go to channel for me a lot of the time. They showed it twice within the last couple of months, most recently as part of their 15-part The Story of Film: An Odyssey, and for whatever reason, the timing wasn’t right to watch it. I felt silly DVRing a film I own, but there is a certain convenience in hitting the record button on the remote. As part of our usual pizza and a movie Fridays, we “finally” watched it.

The film has low budget B-movie written all over it. Small budgets in the hands of the right director are not always a bad thing. In an effort to save money, a filmmaker’s creativity can sometimes lead to some very interesting production decisions, which is the case with Gun Crazy. The film’s most famous sequence was really a cost cutting measure, but more about that later.

Gun Crazy opens on a dark rainy night. 14 year-old Bart Tare (Rusty Tamblin later Russ Tamblin see West Side Story) breaks the plate glass window of a hardware store so he can steal a gun on display. He is immediately caught and held over for trial.

14 year-old Bart (Rusty Tamblin) is crazy about guns and is about to steal one.
There is a long sequence of exposition during a hearing (there are no defense or prosecuting attorneys present) before Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky). The judge hears testimony from Bart’s sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) and his friends Dave Allister (David Blair) and Clyde Boston (Paul Frison) regaling his love of guns, his shooting prowess and his unwillingness to harm a living thing after an unfortunate incident when he was seven (Mickey Little) and killed a baby chick with a BB gun he got for Christmas.

A school teacher, Miss Wynn (Virginia Farmer) also comes forward to talk about young Bart’s fascination with guns, even going so far as to bring one to school. In what now would get you suspended and arrested, was treated more as a game of wills, with Bart finally having to surrender his gun to the Sheriff (Trevor Bardette), Clyde’s father. All of this is well and good, but none of the exposition has anything has to do with the fact that Bart committed burglary.

Miss Wynn tells the judge about the day Bart brought his gun to school.
While Judge Willoughby is sympathetic, he still sentences Bart to reform school until he’s of age. After reform school, Bart spends four years in the Army teaching soldiers to shoot. When he’s out, he returns home. Ruby has by now married and had children (with more on the way). Dave (Nedrick Young), who wears the same fashions he did when he was 14, has grown up to be the editor of the local newspaper and Clyde (Harry Lewis) has taken his father’s job as Sheriff.

Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky) sentences Bart to reform school.
As a treat, they take Bart to see the travelling carnival that is in town. There, Bart is smitten with the troupe’s sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a comely blonde who is also a crack shot. We see her prowess as she shoots balloons and then objects her assistant holds in her hand, mouth and on top of her head (talk about a thankless and dangerous job). But part of the act is to open the show to any local sharpshooter who might want to challenge Laurie. Dave and Clyde help Bart raise the $50 entry fee. When the audience demands the carny Packett “Packy” (Berry Kroeger) put up the prize money, Laurie offers up the ring she wears on her pinkie as collateral and Bart accepts.

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) is a sharpshooter with the travelling carnival.
While Laurie is good, Bart is a little better, or else Laurie throws the competition. After a demonstration of how evenly matched they are, Laurie suggests they try the crown, which is what it sounds like, a crown with six matches that the other wears on their head. They take turns and Laurie lights 5 of the 6 on Bart’s head, but he lights all six on hers. She seems to be smitten, too. She talks Packy into giving Bart a job, who accepts. But while Bart joined the show to be close to Laurie, he is warned by his roommate, a clown no doubt, Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager) that Laurie isn’t the kind of woman “that makes a happy home.”  Bluey-Bluey even tells Bart that he was “born dumb” when it comes to women. But Bart doesn’t listen.

Packett (Berry Kroeger) owns the carnival, but not Laurie's heart.
Packett, too, wants Laurie for himself and tries to throw Bart off her scent. But Laurie wants nothing to do with Packett, calling him “two-bit”. But Packett forces himself on Laurie just as Bart enters her trailer. When Packett attempts to use her mirror as a weapon, Bart shoots it. Packett fires them both on the spot and they leave together.

On their way to getting married, Bart confesses to Laurie that he’s been in reform school. But this has nothing on Laurie’s past. Unbeknownst to Bart, Laurie once killed a man in St. Louis, but she only tells Bart that she is "bad, but will try to be good".

With some money saved up, the couple has a very happy honeymoon. But their money runs out in Las Vegas of all places and Laurie gives Bart a choice: join her in a life of crime or lose her forever. They hold up stores and gas stations, but the money never lasts very long. They up the ante and plan out a bank heist. Dressed in their carny attire, Laurie drives them into Hampton where Bart robs the bank.

The first hold up is the easiest. The gumball machine shouldn't have talked back.
The sequence the film is most famous for has to do with this robbery. Rather than showing Bart going into the bank, the camera stays with Laurie in the getaway car. All the action is shot in one long take from the backseat of the car. The improvised dialogue sounds real as you are literally in the car with Laurie and Bart. And we stay in the car with Laurie as Bart goes in to rob the bank. But things don’t go smoothly. When a local policeman (Robert Osterloh) happens to stop in front of the bank, Laurie gets out of the car to distract him. She is fetching in her outfit and the officer openly flirts with her. When Bart comes out of the bank, she knocks the officer down and the two make a clean getaway.

Part of the bank robbery sequence. The improvised dialogue makes you feel like you're really there.
But they are not done robbing banks. Laurie comes close to killing the bank manager, but Bart stops her. However, when they’re being chased by the police, Laurie, who is driving, encourages Bart to shoot their pursuers. But Bart can’t bring himself to do it and instead shoots out the tire. Once again the couple escapes. Laurie does not have Bart’s hesitance to kill and has to be stopped again from killing a grocer they rob. By now the couple is being written about and newspapers call them robbers and, after Packett comes forward about what happened in St. Louis, murderers.

Bart can't bring himself to shoot the driver of the police car pursuing them. Blame the baby chick.
With money short and after being snowed in, Bart tells Laurie that he’s done with their life of crime. Surprisingly, Laurie she says she is too, but convinces Bart to do one more job so they can flee the country and live in peace together.

Their final heist is a big one. The sequence is typical of the kind you see in heist films and executed very well. The couple plans to steal the payroll at an Armour meat processing plant. Both manage to get jobs there, Bart driving a truck and Laurie working in payroll (this is before the days of background checks apparently). They work out their plan meticulously with everything planned down to the minute. Bart makes a delivery of meat while Laurie is reprimanded by her superior, Augustine Sifert (Anne O’Neal), the plant manager’s secretary for wearing slacks (my how times have changed.)

Under the ruse that Bart is delivering steaks for the plant manager, Mr. Mallenberg (Harry Hayden), he gains entry to the secure part of the plant. Once in, the two pull guns and rob the safe. Miss Sifert keeps eyeing the alarm and as soon as Bart and Laurie start to leave, she pulls it. Laurie makes the point of shooting her dead. And as they are making their getaway she kills a security guard as well.

Laurie lets Miss Sifert have it for pulling the alarm.
Their plan calls for the two of them to split up for a couple of months and they have separate getaway cars ready, but neither can bear to be away from the other that long. After leaving one car in the middle of the road, the two drive off together. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is brought in, and the fugitives become the targets of an intense manhunt, yet they evade a state-wide dragnet and escape to California.

The plan calls for them to spend three months a part, but they only get this far.
They stay in what appears to be Santa Monica and Bart arranges for their passage to Mexico. But the night before they’re supposed to leave, the FBI track them using the serial numbers from money stolen from the meat plant. Forced to leave their loot behind, they are forced to flee by train. Heading back to his hometown, they end up at his sister Ruby's house.

Word gets around that the curtains at Ruby’s house are closed and the children are not allowed to play outside. Curious if it might be Bart, Dave and Clyde, sans guns, go to investigate. They try to convince Bart to surrender, but he runs. He and Laurie flee into the mountains, ending up at Madera National Park, the same one where Bart and his friends would come every year to camp.

Driving their car crashing through the front gate, they are eventually required to ditch the car and continue on foot, but the thin air of the mountain makes it difficult to go too far too fast. They can hear the bloodhounds pursuing them and they try to hide, seeking refuge for the night in a duck blind.

Even though they are running out of steam, Laurie always seems to have a gun in her hand.
But the next morning their running comes to an end. Dave and Clyde approach them through the fog that has settled in overnight. They ask Bart to once again surrender, but Laurie isn’t about to give up easily. She stands and draws her ever handy pistol. But when Bart sees she intends to kill his friends, he shoots and kills her. Hearing gunfire, the police shoot and kill him, too. Clyde and Dave look down at the bodies and slowly walk away, not even bothering to check if either were still alive.

Laurie and Bart hear the police coming. Time has run out for the two.
There is a lot of the Bonnie and Clyde mythos around this movie. Supposedly the story of Bart and Laurie is loosely based on those gangster’s exploits and I’ve heard that the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was influenced by the style of this film. Talk about art imitating art imitating life. But from what I know about the relationship of Bonnie and Clyde the relationship between Bart and Laurie is similar, but there is some very deep psychological issues that are better explored in this telling of the story.

Laurie does wear a beret which is reminiscent of one
Bonnie Parker was photographed wearing (see below)

The Welsh-born actress, Peggy Cummins plays Laurie and it is one of the best femme fatale roles I’ve ever seen. Not only is she cute, she looks very hot wearing a gun belt around her hip. It is easy to see how a gun crazy man like Bart would be attracted to her. She is in many ways the female version of himself, but is also the opposite. While Bart cannot make himself shoot another living thing, Laurie is not bothered by this. She uses his love for her to make him do her bidding. Laurie also seems to get physically excited by the violence, which adds another twisted layer to her character.

Laurie really seems to thrive on the danger. 
After having appeared on the London stage from the age of 12, Cummins was brought to America by Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox at the age of 20. But she was deemed too young for the part he had in mind for her and her Hollywood career never really recovered. She returned to London shortly after making Gun Crazy. There she appeared in her other best known role in the British horror film Night of the Demon (1957) directed by Jacques Tourneur and opposite Dana Andrews. She made her last film in 1961.

It’s too bad, too. If Laurie was any indication, Peggy Cummins should have had a very long and rewarding career.

Likewise, her co-star in this film John Dall’s career in Hollywood never did take off. Prior to Gun Crazy, Dall had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Morgan Evans in The Corn is Green (1945). His other big role had been as Brandon Shaw in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Like Gun Crazy, Rope was inspired by a true-life story, that of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a 14-year old boy, Bobby Franks, in Chicago in 1924. Despite his role as Marcus Glabrus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Dall is pretty much a forgotten man in the pantheons of Hollywood. He retired from acting in 1965 after having appeared on television.

I know very little about the work of Joseph H. Lewis. Known for his ability to make art from the mundane, Lewis directed several low-budget westerns and horror films, including Invisible Ghost (1941) with Bela Lugosi. Prior to Gun Crazy, Lewis was no stranger to crime drama, having directed So Dark the Night (1946) or film-noir The Undercover Man (1949), but Gun Crazy was the pinnacle of his career. In addition to the bank sequence, he also used some very interesting camera angles. When you watch the movie, a great example of this is when Bart is talking to Dave and Clyde on the front porch of his sister's house towards the end of the movie. 

Shot in 30 days with a budget of $400,000, the film is known for its use of locations and of course the ten minute bank robbery sequence. Simulating the interior of a sedan with a stretch Cadillac, the cameraman sat on a jockey’s saddle mounted on a greased two by twelve mounted in the back. This allowed the camera to also move back and forth as well as to pan. A set up for a bank robbery could have taken three to four days of shooting, but Lewis’ inventiveness created a very memorable scene in about three hours. Shot in Montrose California, only the crew and the bank knew about the shoot, so there were numerous reports of a bank robbery that day.

I think this use of the camera also inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Soufflé aka Breathless (1960), a film with a similar storyline, in which a petty thief Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) goes on the run with his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg). (The French circle of critics Godard was a part of were very familiar with American film noir; and even named the genre.) There is a similar sequence to the bank heist of Michel and Patricia driving in a convertible shot from the backseat. But while Lewis accomplished his in one take, Godard used jump cuts to cull the right bits of dialogue for the sequence. (See clip here:

This scene in Breathless reminded me of the bank sequence in Gun Crazy.
While Gun Crazy was not a box office success, it did get and still does receive critical acclaim. The film was selected by the Library of Congress in 1998 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, which speaks to the worthiness of the film.

Gun Crazy takes a while to get going, but the ride is well worth it. A great film is more than one famous sequence and Gun Crazy certainly had much more going for it than the bank sequence. Gun Crazy is a film about love, Bart's for guns and for Laurie and the things he's willing to do with one to keep the love of the other.  If you are a fan of film noir, like I am, then you should definitely seek this one out. You should not be disappointed.

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