Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says you can have your Sarah Connors, Ripleys, and La Femmes Nikita. He'll take Annie Laurie Starr any day.
Our review of Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection, published July 5th, 2004, is also available.
"Come on, Bart, let's finish it the way we started it: on the level."—Annie Laurie Starr
There's been a lot of hoopla lately about movies starring girls with guns. Be it Milla Jovovich blasting zombies in Resident Evil, Geena Davis breaking character in The Long Kiss Goodnight, Sigourney Weaver open firing in Aliens, or even Ryoko Yonekura's tough gal in Gun Crazy: A Woman From Nowhere, adrenaline-charged vehicles that highlight gun-toting babes are making waves. If you are a fan of this blessed pairing, you owe it to yourself to delve into the roots of the "hot chicks with guns" phenomenon by checking out Gun Crazy.
Facts of the Case
Bart Tare (John Dall, Spartacus, Rope) is a man obsessed with guns but not violence. Though not precisely a rebel, Bart fails to fit with society. He does four-year stints in reform school and the Army before getting down to the business of having no clue what he wants to do with his life.
His life springs into immediate focus the moment he sets sight on Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins, Night of the Demon ), a British trick shot with nice gams and animal magnetism. Laurie is what we would call a bad girl, but Bart is too guileless and too love struck to notice. After a friendly shooting competition, the two set off towards an uncertain but ferociously symbiotic future. Laurie wants things, "Big Things," and she will get them any way she can. Bart already has what he wants, a chick that digs guns as much as he does.
Nothing good can come of this.
In the song "Female of the Species," Space vocalist Tommy Scott wails "How can heaven hold a place for me when a girl like you has cast her spell on me?" Replace Tommy Scott with Bart Tare, change the format from '90s single to '40s noir, and you get Gun Crazy. Originally titled Deadly is the Female, the basic plot of Gun Crazy involves Annie Laurie Starr hooking her intoxicating claws into Bart and holding on for dear life. And if you are at all familiar with film noir, you know that the embrace of the femme fatale is rarely good for the hapless protagonist. Fortunately, Gun Crazy offers us much beyond this basic premise, making it not only one of the top few noirs of all time, but according to Gary Johnson "one of the greatest B movies ever made." (See the "10 Shades of Noir" link in the sidebar.)
If you examine the Scales of Justice, you'll note that my overall judgment is slightly greater than the acting or story scores would suggest. Gun Crazy has "it," an indefinable element of cohesive momentum. As I watched the events unfold, I had a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. My hands were clammy (and I'm not typically a moist person). Watching Gun Crazy is a visceral, even primal, experience.
There are many intriguing angles to Gun Crazy. For example, it is not a typical film noir, yet it is unmistakably film noir. The cinematography isn't filled with oppressive shadows, but is rife with expressionistic angles and intense compositions. The characters are not particularly eloquent or complex, but they radiate noirish angst and overzealous malice nonetheless. Bart is not trapped in a maze with no exit; he is not tirelessly hounded by shadowy criminals or mysterious forces beyond his control. Yet Bart is hopelessly trapped, and he is incessantly hounded by the law. The streets are not riddled with corruption; Bart and Laurie are the corruption. Gun Crazy eschews most of film noir's trademark elements. In spite of that, no other genre describes it so perfectly. This is what makes Gun Crazy such a standout film noir: it breaks the "rules" and gives us something exemplary in return.
Bart is an unusual noir victim/hero. He has the ability and the opportunity to get out at any time. How many noir protagonists have been given that chance? It is a rare, agonizingly rare, chance in a million for most noir characters: a ray of light, one unblocked exit out of the maze that would let the poor sap out of his nightmare. Bart is practically walking in sunshine, and he's never in a maze. He runs in a straight line down one long corridor he carved for himself. Why does Bart choose to live in the nightmare that so many noir anti-heroes fight to escape?
The answer to that question forms Gun Crazy's emotional and thematic core; the answer is love. Bart and Laurie's feral attraction is one of the best depictions of love in the history of cinema. You can sense their love…hell, you can practically smell it radiating from their aroused bodies. One of Gun Crazy's most lauded scenes is the first meeting between Bart and Laurie. Both the movie and its critics use primal metaphors for the attraction between the two: animals sniffing each other out, two wild animals crazed with lust, hot hot monkey love…you get the idea. The carnality of the shooting competition is unmistakable and nearly indescribable. Bart is rigid with lust, yet marshals hidden resources of suaveness and machismo to impress his nubile would-be mate. For her part, Laurie flashes eyes brimming with thinly veiled lust, maintaining calm yet constantly breaking character to taunt Bart with her body. This carnality is not explicit; audiences raised on today's menu of oiled, writhing bodies might not pay close enough attention and miss the erotic subtext altogether. But if you place yourself into Bart or Laurie's shoes, the vicarious flirtation is thrilling.
So much for lust, but I'm talking about love: two characters drinking from each other, living only to be two. One of Gun Crazy's most lauded scenes (there are a lot of those) comes later in the film. Bart's urgent need to be with Laurie has not subsided. Somewhere along the line, Laurie's manipulative sexual blackmail coalesced into genuine love. Granted, their love is neither typical nor healthy, and they both know it. So they decide to split up to throw off the cops. What they are really telling themselves is "now's my chance to ditch this crazy broad/square chump." So they literally go their separate ways…for ten seconds or so. A cleverly composed take shows the cars driving away, then swerving back towards each other in a magnetic spiral. The two collide and kiss in a triumphant orgy of bliss. Laurie's body and face tell us that she has Bart cold, but that makes him all the more attractive to her. Finally, Laurie knows for certain that she loves Bart. The audience knows it too.
This level of emotional complexity is unusual in film noir. Rarely do we experience firsthand the hero's entanglement. Robert Siodmak's The Killers contains one of film noir's most notorious femme fatales in Ava Gardener's Kitty Collins, and one of it's poorest saps in Burt Lancaster's "Swede." Swede's introduction to Kitty is the functional equivalent of the shooting contest in Gun Crazy, but it lacks Gun Crazy's first-hand sizzle. We watch Swede become stricken, we know he is doomed, and we have to guess forthwith whether Kitty spares any emotion at all for Swede. Peggy Cummins' Laurie isn't as aloof or inscrutable, at least not to the audience. She's constantly shooting us looks of glee, triumph, or lust that reveal her attachment to Bart. Has the femme fatale ever been so right for a man as Laurie is for Bart?
I've alluded to the acting that sells us on their relationship, but let's now discuss the acting explicitly. Both Peggy Cummins and John Dall give the performances of their careers. (Lest you think I've seen most of their work and have pinned two blue ribbons on Gun Crazy, be aware that this evaluation is from Glenn Erickson's commentary track. But you hardly have to watch their other performances to buy his assertion.) Acting is about responding, and they respond in full. Cummins sells us on Laurie's sensation-seeking, thrill-crazy, ambitious, thoroughly rotten soul. Dall is likeably damaged, aimless until Laurie gives his life meaning. His big stupid grin somehow doesn't look fake. His tension, anxiety, and sense of unchecked descent are believable. As individuals and as partners they pour life into Gun Crazy.
The rest of the cast shines as well, even bit parts like Stanley Prager's streetwise clown Bluey-Bluey or Berry Kroeger's seedy carnival boss Packett. Gun Crazy is often praised for its realism, and the acting goes a long way towards establishing an environment of verisimilitude.
The other element that contributes to this environment is daring and kinetic cinematography. Gun Crazy is full of one-take scenes, which is a complex trick that makes directors seem really, really cool. Neither director Joseph H. Lewis nor cinematographer Russell Harlan has artifice on his mind. (In fact, there are precious few directorial decisions that seem out of place; Lewis seems to have absolute control of the picture.) The extended takes during the robberies allow us to live with the characters for a few minutes, see into their tension, precision, and euphoria. The extended take is a natural fit for these scenes; something we can say in retrospect that was groundbreaking at the time.
In fact, each shot is carefully composed to give the deepest impact. As I watched Gun Crazy, I was continually stimulated by arresting compositions and creative camera work. When young Bart is being sentenced to reform school, the camera slowly homes in on his ear. We see nothing of his facial expression or posture, but that ear tells us all we need to know. Bart's first glimpse at Laurie is a worm's eye view from the audience to the stage. High contrast gives her a dramatic radiance, as though Bart's senses had suddenly sprung into heightened sensitivity. Because of our viewpoint, Laurie physically dominates Bart (and by association, us). She fires her pistols, and the light flashing in her eyes says it all: she loves guns, she is trouble, and she digs Bart. These are some of the most obvious and memorable shots, but Gun Crazy is a continuous, driving surge of creative camera work that gives us the sensation of a haphazard forward plunge.
How did Warner Brothers handle this masterpiece of B-cinema? They gave it due respect, but did not lose sight of its cult status. We are given a conscientious restoration, a commentary, and a pat on the back, which is enough for me.
The transfer quality is outstanding. Warner Brothers grasps the idea that
this film will appeal to film connoisseurs more than to the general public.
Appropriately, they poured the dollars into the restoration instead of the
extras. The opening scenes absolutely dazzled me with their clarity, warmth,
crisp contrast, and lack of artifacts. I strained to find it, but I detected no
edge enhancement or digital noise reduction. Instead, I found startling detail.
The opening scene contains two dramatic close-ups, and I could see every pore,
raindrop, and eyelash clearly. Later scenes contained white vertical scratches
and other blemishes, and the contrast suffered in at least one interior scene,
but these are minor and expected annoyances. The transfer is clean while
Gun Crazy is intoxicating, intense, and emotionally draining. Its basic noir premise is infused with vitality through immediate camerawork, expressionistic angles, excellent performances, and a racy central theme. Gun Crazy is considered a cult film, but its themes and aesthetic are precursors to much of modern crime cinema. It is undeniably a great film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The sound quality is not as captivating as the visuals. The original volume levels fluctuate, particularly when the single takes are employed. The technology of the time simply did not support what Lewis wanted to accomplish. There aren't major problems with the soundtrack, just periods of less clean dialogue. Time has had its impact as well: there is one major dropout in the soundtrack and a few pops and hisses.
Gun Crazy may be the greatest B film in history, but it is still a B film. The production values are not extremely high. If you look for continuity errors, you will find a few, and they might make you laugh.
Speaking of laughs, I laughed near the end for the wrong reason. Gun Crazy is a madcap dash; neither the characters not the audience is given much of a breather. Bart and Laurie do have one extended sequence of leisure, which is a welcome relief from their fight-or-flight existence. Yet we are tipped off that the pair is in peril, so their time of relaxation only makes us more and more tense. The film does a fantastic job of building tension, until we feel we might burst with anxiety. The pair escaped the local police. Then they escaped the feds. They kept escaping. Then they arrived in Bart's old hometown, got discovered, and fled once again. At that moment, I realized that Gun Crazy had no idea what to do with the delicious tension it had created. The story suddenly seemed a bit shallow: run, run, run some more, sit awhile, then keep running. Gun Crazy desperately needed a hook, a twist…a red herring, at least, to break up the linearity. Off the top of my head, I can think of five different endings that would better suit this film. But it is what it is, and the ending is at least true to the characters. I can't help but contrast this ending with another recent film noir release, Force of Evil, which builds similar tension. When Force of Evil's end comes, it is concise and poignant; the director gave the film the dignity of a brief and sudden ending that did justice to the proceeding events.
Nothing in these Rebuttal Witnesses should be construed as "don't see Gun Crazy."
The noir genre, though dark and subversive, sometimes threatens to become convention-bound. Shadows here, desperate man there, sexy vixen closing for the kill…you know the drill. But Film Noir has thus far managed to escape the conformity trap, remaining a flexible forum for dark ruminations. This freedom is the result of films like Gun Crazy, films that embrace the genre but stretch it in new directions. Even now, over fifty years later, Gun Crazy's caché remains strong.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Glenn Erickson
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