Gun Crazy

Screening on Film
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
With Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger.
US, 1950, 35mm, black & white, 87 min.
Print source: UCLA

1

Goin’ to the movies / I found a shelter from the sun / Heard a gruesome story / About a couple on the run. 

 from the song “Summertime” by Galaxie 500

You make me shiver, I feel so tender / We make a pretty good team / Don't get exhausted, I'll do some driving / You ought to get you some sleep 

 from the song “Life During Wartime” by Talking Heads

Gun Crazy is incontestably the ultimate film of L’Amour Fou. Fugitive newlyweds escalating through all the majors and minors of larceny and felony, an ascent to the downward spiral. Nick Ray's adaption of Thieves Like Us, They Live By Night (1948) started something. Interrupted innocents, tender love on the lam with two kids "never properly introduced to this world." A couple deserving of a second chance. Denied.

In Gun Crazy, Bart and Laurie emerge already tarnished, prodigal, prodigious sharpshooters, mutually dependent with ignited libidos trying to balance each other's opposing moral codes. They go together “like guns and ammunition." Vulnerable, capable, madly in love clinging to fetish and phobia, clinging to each other, propelled by desperation and dreams. What other film evokes this degree of heightened eroticism and loneliness entwined in disequilibrium. Just one reason why this masterwork from the low-budget peripheries intoxicates and puts us at the altitudes of Borzage and Grémillon.

When their love takes them beyond reason and safety they look towards a lost horizon, their losses accumulating with each heist. This film induces heartbreak long before its eerie, magisterial ending that reminds us of the filmic poetry of Mizoguchi and Murnau.

Seeking refuge in the falling snow or enshrouded in mist, wrapped in the illusory veils of Maya, the couple drives towards an unreachable stillness. Whenever they seem trapped they try to blast their way out.

It’s just that everything is going so fast. It’s all in such high gear. It doesn’t feel like me. It’s as if none of it really happened as if nothing were real anymore.
– “
Bart Tare” speaking to “Laurie”

The blacklisted Dalton Trumbo writing undercover kept the heart of MacKinlay Kantor’s script, built it for speed, cut it to the bone, polished the skeleton like a mad team of white ants. Joseph H. Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan (cameraman for Hawks, Minnelli, Preminger, Curtiz, De Toth, Mulligan) gave it a uniquely dynamic visual poetry, inventiveness and excitement. The justly celebrated long-take bank heist getaway is not an isolated incident in terms of innovation and expressiveness. The camera is empathy in action, cornering us as witnesses, implicating us as accessories before we realize it.

The not-to-be-maligned former slot machine salesmen The King Brothers (Monograph Pictures) produced. Given reduced means and unerring instincts, they granted freedom, creating the ideal circumstances for one of the greatest films of any genre or era.

John Dall had recently appeared in Hitchcock's Rope and the underexposed Peggy Cummins reemerged decades later in Tourneur's Night of the Demon. These two actors seemed an unlikely match on paper but they surpassed themselves, both giving the greatest performances of their careers. As the doomed couple they bringing spontaneity and incandescent chemistry to the screen. Both inhabited their roles like it was their life story. You have to remind yourself that these were not their only roles. Was this independent low-budget masterpiece what Hollywood could have been or an augur of things to come? Neither and both. In 2019, when we are in need of a new future and a (truthful) new past, we can see that Gun Crazy was an unquestionable influence on many films that followed but remains untouchably unique.

2

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun.
Bob Dylan

your name is downpour and your name is meadow
your name is high tide
you have all the names of water
But your sex is unnameable
the other face of being
the other face of time
 Octavio Paz "Clear Night" (extract)

Gun Crazy begins dreamlike in a downpour in heightened unreality in medias res. A nocturnal feverish wet dream of precipitation and uncontrollable desire. Nine beautifully composed shots placed inside a little over a minute’s time composed as an overture that feels like a flashback (but isn’t), where echoes in embryo hatch clues to identity and fate, hinting at the circuitry of the film itself. A fourteen-year-old boy stealthily moves through the rain, rounding a corner into a late-night deserted street. An area of small commercial stores as American as a Saturday Evening Post illustration becomes a metaphysical arena like a Golgotha, a corrida or a de Chirico piazza, the scene of a crime. A hardware store display case beckons, its glass vault a reliquary of rifles and pistols begging for possession. Bart: “I like shooting ‘em, Judge. I don’t know why, but I feel good when I’m shooting them. I feel awful good inside like I’m somebody.”     

The camera tracks back as the boy moves forward, revealing itself to be on the other side of the glass, inside the recess of the coveted interior. Completely absent of dialogue, this primal scene—with its graphic character of high-key lighting and sharp contrast—is as striking as a sequence of woodcuts in the wordless novels of Frans Masereel. But there is the sound of rain, of shattering glass, a stolen gun skidding across a slick street. There are surprising sympathetic camera movements in counterpoint to the trembling dance of the guilty boy. Movements that propel us into another realm of identification and affinity. Bart slips face down into the street. Behind the fallen child are distinctive cursive silver letters, an ordinary yet prophetic name on a store Marsh/Marsh’s. This is a word clue that forecasts a chase in the “San Lorenzo” marsh, where the exhausted couple struggles through moonlit streams and obscure bogs to the sound of barking hounds.

After the boy tumbles in the street and a towering policeman—a familiar guardian figure made menacing by close framing—waits to close in, we spot evocative words that speak the alluring irrational lingo of American advertising, language that whispers to the unconscious mind. Appearing on another store window the brand name:

“THOR Automagic”

A now-obsolete hybrid appliance that once promised cleansing with "gentle agitation.”

Other store windows will reappear in the future. Jewelry displays and pawn shops. A wedding ring purchased later put up for hock. The Tammy Wynette song “Golden Ring” illustrates the ironic trajectory of the symbolic inanimate object directed by romantic deterioration. The wedding band before the ceremony and after divorce. But our couple stays emotionally solvent, even more deeply bound as their circumstances become more alarming.

We have been introduced to Bart Tare. And the runaway energy of the film has been in set in motion.

3

I first saw Gun Crazy about forty years ago in the tugboat-shaped Thalia where the rake of the theater paradoxically tilted upwards towards the screen. Double bills were often shown uninterrupted without the lights ever coming up. Sometimes it was too scary to see who was sitting near you.

The film glowed on screen. Love at first sight. I was thunderstruck. Novel vivid propulsive. Pulp gospel. I felt like was receiving a hidden sacrament of cinema. The film felt like something that really happened. Like something that was happening as I watched it, something that was happening to me. The kind of experience you have as a child when films are overpowering, vicarious and hallucinatory with secret actions and drives that make you feel eerily complicit or prematurely adult. Films that make you love every moment, even the gestures you can’t quite grasp. Films that seem to want to break your heart then nurse you back to health in the aftermath as you remember them.

Gun Crazy combines single-take spontaneity and realism, the feeling of documentary occurrences with rear-screen artifice, backlot sets and actual locations. The reality and the surreality of the meat plant carcasses. The late-night roadside diners, cheap hotel rooms, the desperate refuge of a woodshed in the falling snow, weary bodies crying in the mist, the enchanted and the tawdry. Lust is different than love but love is the strongest aphrodisiac. Hopelessness breeds hope.

Poetry as straight talk, poetry as innuendo. Combustible poetry. The power of the cut.

Made on a shoestring. But there is no sign of the patchwork collage, substitutions or anything “make do” in this film. All coheres in a fabric unified by emotion. Watching it is as magical and as frightening as driving down a back road, lost, feeling the presence of the unknown or the inevitable up ahead.

I left feeling no division between the film and the night outside. I found a film that wouldn’t end. I rode the subways for hours with no sense of direction or destination. No questioning or relishing the details, only sympathetically reverberating in shock. A one-way road of no return.

As with some music, the striking of the notes is equal in importance to the resonance and decay time. The haunted overhang. The ghost of the film took up permanent residency inside of me, lodged in memory singing darkly in my sleep. If you examine the film closely not dispassionately, analytically it still sets the heart racing, it doesn’t crumble. It is exalted, magnified. L'Amour Fou. Transgression. Hejira. The floating world. Damaged children let loose onto the shifting plates under the surface of the earth. It all seems impossibly inventive and alive. The throwaway culture of American B-movies made films for the drive-in for the Bijou for the masses and the solitary mind capturing the imagination. We are taken hostage by these allegories that connect through action and refuse to disappear. This work is indestructible. Enduring minimal critical response and box office seasoned by neglect, the films gain potency. Eventually the shared secret of this low-budget sleeper Gun Crazy, once classified as neither classic nor film maudit, rose to rumors of its greatness and became a landmark, then a museum piece, part of a canon. Nothing can defeat its voltage and its wild heart. Maybe that was already happening by the time I saw the film in a renowned and dingy theater but films like this feel like a discovery when you first see them whenever or wherever you find them. They provide a refuge and a storm. You enter their world and it becomes yours. And you stick by them. And they stay with you for life.

4

“The lovely to look at“ Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) makes her coruscating entry guns blazing on a sideshow stage, twirling her pistols and swinging her hips, offering an act of virtuoso marksmanship and carnival burlesque. Supposedly trained in Brighton amusement parks and shooting galleries, Laurie is a magnetic and commanding lost soul. Her eyes catch Bart’s as he grins, ardently gazing at her with an astronomer’s leer. She fires a blank cartridge at him at close range. A funny valentine. An audacious theatrical come-on. Bart spasms in response to the pistol’s report. A challenge. The two spar and spark. Like a jazz cutting contest, an alchemical wedding.

Laurie brands herself as a bad girl, a bad girl with the feeling she wants to be good. But she had a hair-trigger reflex, a compulsion to kill when cornered or pursued.

Laurie is hypnotic. She has the equipment and proclivity to be sexually manipulative. She has cold ambition. She is mercurial with the ruthless survival instincts and the touch of sociopathy needed to embody the archetype or the fantasy stereotype of the noir femme fatale. But she is in fact a great deal more complicated, more honest in her damages and yearning. She is not deceitful; she is on the level. Her most excessive moves are borne out of fear and panic. She carries an abyss inside of her. Laurie genuinely loves Bart and this makes all the difference in the world.

Bart led astray becomes a strategic but reluctant criminal. He has no desire to cause harm. He commiserates with his victims. If anything he feels chronic empathy for everyone.

Laurie’s embrace is meant to captivate, to enflame, to stifle anxiety, stifle lucidity, wreck his unerring compass of conscience. So she acts as a forcefield, a lure but also a medicine, narcotic and consoling. Bart may be a moth to the flame but he is also argumentative and enduringly strong. He cradles and protects Laurie in her weakest moments. Even when logic dictates they split up for a while to throw the law off their trail, and they prove inseparable. As their separate getaway cars are ready to diverge, they screech to a halt and reunite in tears of joy. Love calls us by our name, and we see the truth laid bare. Only the Heart matters.

5

If you knew, all the dreams I had about you
Then you’d know I’ve got it bad about you
– “
Mad About You,” Gun Crazy theme song, lyrics Ned Washington, music Victor Young

Both Bart and Laurie are shot through with uneven streaks of innocence, dressing in costumes, playacting as criminals. Life at the pitch of the masquerade. Suspension of disbelief works in their favor. But the bullets are real.

Bart is courageous, fearless, only momentarily paralyzed at points of extreme cognitive dissonance.

Prone to nuance, compassion, bewilderment.

Laurie can be fearful and stern, baring her teeth, frothing into near ecstasy when armed pursuers fall away. They each have their scars and private commotions but they share calamity and hope for impossibilities once closer than the moon, yet the moon evaporates.

Futility

Evanescence

Not a nickel to buy fried onions in the time of hunger. Later flush enough to buy a fur coat with marked bills. Shivering in boxcars then bursting through roadblocks. The texture of life is velvet, then coarse and frayed. The texture of life a nebulous marsh, a mantle of returning childhood tucking you into bed, the penalty zone of memory. Love lies exhausted in the reeds in the arms of panic and protection. The dream dies in the arms of the law. Laurie says, "We're really in trouble this time." Every scared child has spoken these words at some point. We all have. We all return from points of no return. And then one time we don't. Ghostly voices of childhood companions call out, confident searchlights in a natural obscurity that feels mythical and supernatural swallowed by the fog. Breathless in apotheosis, the crooning love theme is now a surging crescendo of choral vocalise. The nebulous world falls away. Surpassing human contradiction, the film expires as the camera ascends.

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