Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rebloged from Down These Mean Streets

Gun Crazy (1950) Down These Mean Streets

This ultra low-budget lovers-on-the-lam picture - very loosely
 based on the Bonnie and Clyde saga - is the real deal. 
Produced outside the mainstream studio system, it it utterly 
unexpected and subversive.

Gun Crazy was directed by Joseph H. Lewis who never rose to 
A-list status. His output was strictly B. Unheralded in his time, his 
movies have long gained a cult following due to his ability of 
elevating el cheapo Poverty Row flicks to cinematic art. 
His sense of style was impeccable.

The movie was produced by The King Brothers who had been 
responsible for the 1945 runaway hit Dillinger. They were a fleabag 
outfit even by Poverty Row standards. According to Eddie Muller 
other studios considered them bottom feeders. Reviled by 
rivals, they were former bootleggers and hustlers who saw the movie 
making business as just another get-rich-quick racket. Maybe so, but 
they were able to score one (modest) hit after another and into the 
bargain produce a few minor classics.

Working for Poverty Row meant shoestring budgets but also 
artistic freedom. Stylistic choices that turned out to be brilliant were often born out of the necessity 
of stretching a non-existent budget. In fact Gun Crazy is a marvel of economic filmmaking.
It contains one of movie history’s most celebrated robbery sequences that is documentary realism 
at its finest. Director Lewis removed everything except the front seats out of the getaway car, put 
the camera equipment in the back and shot the entire scene all in one long take with 
ad-libbed dialogue. We as audience are right there with him in the backseat. 

Unbeknownst to even Lewis, Gun Crazy was written by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, one of the 
infamous Hollywood 10. Trumbo had already been blacklisted - the King Brothers hired him just 
before he was shipped off to prison - and credited Millard Kaufman functioned as his front writer. 
Trumbo’s credit was only restored after his death.

The plot of Gun Crazy is quite simple. Boy meets gun meets girl with gun. From his earliest childhood days Bart Tare (John Dall) has been obsessed with guns. After a stint in reform school for trying to steal one as an adolescent, Bart comes home, his obsession intact. His friends take him to a traveling carnival show - the natural habitat of freaks and geeks. There he meets Miss Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), dressed in a sexy cowgirl outfit, and shooting cigarettes out of her assistant’s mouth with a six-shooter. Bart’s got it bad. They get married, hit the road, money runs out and now what? They drift into a career as bank robbers. The cops catch on to them pretty fast and soon they can add murder to their rap sheet. They’re wanted in several states and so they decide to pull one last big heist before retiring to Mexico. Guess how this is going to end.

The movie starts off slowly and suffers from the lengthy prologue delving deep into Bart’s past. I understand it’s necessary for the audience to get an insight into 
Bart’s mental state, but the backstory is a bit on the corny side, clunky and preachy, there to play 
up sympathy, most notably in the trial sequence. But it’s a minor gripe.
As a little boy Bart mistakenly killed a tiny baby chick with his BB gun and it traumatized him. 
This is not what he wanted to do. The movie makes it abundantly clear that Bart likes to shoot, but 
cannot take the life of a living being, human or animal. He just likes to fire off rounds. It’s the only 
thing he’s ever been good at. Later, as a criminal, he still can’t bring himself to kill, even if his life 
might depend on it. There is a moral core to Bart. Understanding the dichotomy in his strange 
fixation is the key to his character.

When Laurie enters the scene guns a-blazing, the movie finally takes off. Bart has found a kindred spirit. She’s a rather proletarian femme fatale, not too glamorous, a bit rough around the edges and so just right for him. Bart has always been a fish out of water, he’s socially awkward and it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe he’s never had a girl-friend before. The second he lays eyes on her showing off her figure and her shooting skills no power on earth can keep him from her.
Laurie challenges him to a duel and rarely ever did the 50s see such a blatant display of eroticism on screen, fully clothed though. They shoot it out and it’s like striking a match in a gunpowder factory. There’s even a scene where Laurie shoots between her legs. Director Lewis gave his actors a rather crude but effective instruction to do the scene: 

”I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keephim 
waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them 
more directions”. 

Lewis got what he wanted. This is not just a shooting contest, it’s foreplay, or maybe more than 

Noir has always been a genre of transgressive subtexts and perverted psychology. In Gun 
Crazy not only is crime presented as glamorous, but violence is eroticized. The movie relates 
shooting and later crime to the thrill of sex, thus flaunting the Production Code mightily. 
Oh, the joys of pulpy Freudianism.

Poverty Row could get away with this as they were flying somewhat under the commercial radar. 
They were much less under the microscope of the guardians of morality than the big studios. 
Besides that, Trumbo - like any good writer - had a knack for writing around the Code while 
technically working within its constraints.

A short time later, Bart and Laurie leave the 
carnival. Bart wants to take a regular job for 
$40 a week but the straight life has no allure 
for Laurie. She wants to live a little and 
living doesn’t mean a tenement with peeling
plaster and a hot plate in the corner. “I want 
things…big things… I want a guy with spirit 
and guts… a guy who can kick over the 
traces and win the world for me.” She 
also gives Bart the obligatory “I’m no good” 
speech - known from so many other Noirs -
and tells him that she’s killed a man before. 
But in Noir red flags go unheeded. Like any 
other Noir hero, when trouble comes 
knocking on the door, he embraces it 
Laurie knows exactly how to work her man, black stockings, bedroom eyes and all. She wrote 
the book on that. She used sex to get her man and now uses her man to get her what she 
wants. Faced with the possibility of losing Laurie, Bart gives in. He’s transferred his obsession 
from guns to a woman who has one. She’s all he ever wanted and any kind of good sense he 
ever had goes out of the window. He’ll follow her straight to the gates of hell. “We go together 
Laurie, I don’t know why, like guns and ammunition go together.” Another nice guy sucker who 
can’t keep his libido under control. 

Laurie wants to go straight, really she does, but it’s no good. Her love for thrills gets in the way 
and it’s something she can’t help. Deep down this is who she is. Cool as a cucumber she 
suggests armed robbery. The road to Easy Street is paved with bad intentions.

And so the ballad of Laurie and Bart begins. Their cross-country crime spree plays like an 
extended honeymoon thrill ride.
But the moment Bart makes his decision to stay with Laurie, it’s clear that they’re doomed. 
With each job they pull they come closer to catastrophe, no matter how much they try to even 
the odds. There’s no way out for the star-crossed lovers.

It takes Bart quite a while to figure out just how far Laurie is willing to go to get what she wants. 
When he finally gets the full picture, he doesn’t care anymore. He knows she’s going to be his 
ruin. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even though John Dall was far from being Hollywood’s greatest actor, the role of Bart fits him 
perfectly. Hitchcock supposedly chose him for Rope because of his inherently weak quality. 
Hitch was on to something. Bart is a simple guy, lanky, awkward, with a big goofy grin. He’s a 
drifter, diffident and indecisive… until he meets his guiding star. Dall conveys Bart’s 
aimlessness very well.

UK import Peggy Cummins is dynamite. After a few Hollywood disappointments she was back 
on her way to the UK and unfortunately Gun Crazy was to be her Hollywood swan song. 
Clearly that was Hollywood’s loss.

As opposed to Bart, we never find out what makes Laurie tick. We never get to know the root of her obsession with guns, we only see the manifestations of it. There simply is a kink in her character. She’s hot-tempered, amoral and slightly unhinged. Like a child she must have what she sees. 
The single worst thing in the world for a girl like her is boredom. The robberies are really not so much about money, they provide a rush for her. On top of that, she has an itchy trigger finger. She has what Bart is lacking: a true killer instinct. She not only has no compunction about killing, she likes to kill. This is how she gets her kicks. For Bart’s benefit she plays a little comedy to justify her killings, whimpering she only killed because she was frightened and lost her nerve, but one look at her face after she pulled the trigger belies that statement. There was nothing but cold purpose in her eyes, and something more…a positively feral look. Crime and killing are sexual gratification.

Their relationship is another destructive amour fou. Do they love each other? Bart no doubt loves Laurie. Does Laurie love him? She’s willing to leave him if he doesn’t want to follow her into a life of crime. But it turns out they can’t be without the other. Laurie is not a dame who milks gullible suckers for all they’re worth, she’s not looking for a chump to take the fall for her crimes. Her love for Bart is genuine which sets her apart from other femmes 
After one holdup they mean to split up for a
while because the cops are looking for a 
couple. They simply can’t. Magically they’re 
pulled back together and turn their 
respective getaway cars around. It’s a 
wonderful scene, sad, poignant, tragic and 
romantic at the same time.

Both Laurie and Bart are misfits who 
have never belonged anywhere. But only 
Bart understands that being an outlaw means 
being an outcast. The traditional postwar 
dream of a happy home life, stable job and a 
picket fence is not for them, especially not for 
Laurie. We just have to look at the contempt 
in her eyes when she meets Bart’s sister, now
a domestic drudge, and her three little 
children. It’s Lewis’ little stab at matrimony. Ruby is not a glowing recommendation for married life. 
The reward for living a decent life is near poverty.

Laurie believes that one last big score will get them the money to retire to Mexico to buy a farm and, Bart suggests, raise some kids. They stick up the payroll department at a meat-packing plant, but Laurie’s itchy trigger finger leaves two people dead. Bart should have known that his Laurie is not the domestic type. The carny clown warned him.

As fugitives they return to Bart’s hometown where they encounter his childhood friends again. The story arc now comes full circle. Bart and Laurie have come to the end of the road and make their last stand out in a swamp. Laurie is hysterical and out for blood when the cops and Bart’s friends arrive: “I'll KILL YOU! I'll KILL YOU!” Laurie can’t stop herself. Bart knows he has to protect others from her. She would go on killing. As a child he killed the baby chick against his better nature and now tragically he has to shoot the only thing he ever loved. She is his first and only kill. Seconds later the cops shoot him dead. The lovers are united in death.

The movie has a trashy yet wonderfully romantic allure to it. There’s glamour in being young 
and wild and bad. B-pictures show the true spirit of Noir: made on a dime and boldly going where 
no-one else would go, these tawdry little gems get it exactly right. They get down and dirty and 
make no excuse for it.

Of course the transgressors have to pay for their sins in the end as a concession to the Production 
Code, but it’s a small price to pay for a wild ride.

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