Saturday, June 16, 2018

GUN CRAZY (1950)

United Artists, 87m 6s

Guns and sex combine explosively in GUN CRAZY, a film noir concerned with violence, lust and greed, in that order. It is the tragic story of a flawed man who falls for a beautiful woman whose wants are excessive. As the title strongly implies, GUN CRAZY also signals a stern warning about the potentially corrosive nature of obsessive gun ownership, and the horrible impact guns wielded by the wrong people can have on innocents.

The narrative structure exploits the generally accepted Freudian assertion that childhood experiences shape adult behavior. Bart Tare's obsession with firearms has its roots in his early years in the small town of Cashville. As a youth (portrayed by Mickey Little and Russ Tamblyn), being the best shot in town makes him feel like "somebody." Bart has not had a male role model in the house. He was raised by his older sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) before his repeated issues with gun possession get him four years of reform school. After a stint in the military, as an adult (now played by John Dall) his only civilian ambition is to get a job with a gun manufacturer. His marksmanship is all that defines his identity. Bart's plans for a simple existence go up in flames one evening when his mates Sheriff Clyde Boston (Trevor Bardette) and Dave Allister (Nedrick Young) suggest they check out the carnival, that cesspool of base human instincts that provides a suitable setting within so many films noir. When the three men become enchanted by a couple of gyrating gypsy dancers, it becomes apparent something is going to change in Bart's life, or perhaps already has changed.

With Bart and his friends in attendance, "The famous, the dangerous, the appealing, so dangerous, so lovely to look at..." Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) is brought out to circus tent onlookers. How interesting that the word “dangerous” is declared twice! She is an expert shot with a revolver and, in essence, a bold challenge to the established patriarchal order. In what only can be described as a mating ritual, Bart proves his shooting skills are even sharper than those of Laurie. Rather than pursue a career with a gun manufacturing outfit, Bart joins the travelling carnival to be close to his exciting new romantic interest. That profession proves to be short-lived when Laurie's former beau and carnival owner Packett (Berry Kroeger) fires both of them out of jealousy. It is clear at that juncture Packett has a serious drinking problem, and one wonders if Laurie provided some type of contributory factor. No matter, Packett is old news to Laurie, and things have heated up quickly for her and Bart, despite the rather pointed advice of the circus clown Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager):

Bluey-Bluey: "It's just that some guys are born smart about women and some guys are born dumb."
Bart: "Some guys are born clowns."
Bluey-Bluey: "You were born dumb."

That exchange conveys volumes about not only Bart Tare, but the major dynamic of an entire film genre. The film noir is a window into a world mostly controlled by fate, a place where individuals seem unable to walk a straight line. It may be tempting to argue that troubled noir characters often bring about their own misfortunes, and on a surface level at least, that seems a pretty reasonable position. Interestingly, a clown best understands the choices we make may not be of our own free will. Bluey-Bluey believes it was Bart's genetic destiny ("born") to encounter Laurie. Indeed Bart and Laurie go together like guns and ammunition, as Bart simplistically summarizes it.

At Bart's suggestion, the couple seeks out the nearest justice of the peace before what looks to be a fairly routine sightseeing honeymoon. The connection between them goes beyond circus showmanship, as the two seemingly share similar social backgrounds. Bart's history is examined in greater depth, but Laurie provides a clue to hers when she mentions, "...I've been kicked around all my life. Well from now on I'm going to start kicking back." Predictably, their money evaporates rapidly, and that is when a critical difference between the two is grounded. Laurie convinces Bart his expertise with firearms could be utilized for greater financial gain than a mere $40 per week at Remington. That salary would be enough money for the two to make ends meet as far as he is concerned, but money is important to Laurie, big money, and a substantial sum could be made through a series of robberies, at least from her point of view. The other major difference between the two is Laurie does not care if someone gets hurt or even killed along the way. Bart killed a small creature with a BB gun as a little boy and was reduced to tears. As a teen, he could not shoot a mountain lion, despite the sound notion there could be a bounty involved. In direct contrast to her husband, money would have been all the motivation Laurie would have needed to kill. She clearly gets off on the thrill of violence, as the below screen capture reveals in her slightly crazed countenance.

The noir femme fatale Annie Laurie Starr

The warning signs about Laurie are many, especially in terms of a film noir vocabulary. For starters, she is a foreigner from London, a big-city outsider who invades Bart's small hometown. Before her tenure with Packett comes to an end, he pleads with her to give him another opportunity to provide the endless money fountain she so clearly requires. "Bart I want things, a lot of things, big things..." she pours out to her husband. She even reprimands him lightly for getting them fired before payday. Prior to the marriage about which Laurie seems somewhat ambivalent, Bart is embarrassed to confess he spent time in reform school. She couldn't care less, and assures Bart she is no great prize herself. In defiance of patriarchal hegemony, she is scolded by her female superior for wearing slacks to work. Soon after that scene, Laurie kills two at a payroll heist of a meat packing plant, and later admits she killed a guy in St. Louis during another armed robbery. In the middle of a chase sequence she tries to retrieve the fur she dropped, despite the fact the law is right behind her. In an insanely selfish move with law enforcement closing in, she is prepared to hold a small child hostage! In a departure from Bart's background, which by way of flashbacks show him as an outcast even as a boy, it is suggested Laurie's childhood was less tough when she fondly recalls her father's shooting gallery near Brighton Pier. She endeavors to recreate that setting when the couple checks in at a hotel by the Santa Monica Pier. Of course, there is no going back to an idyllic past, not in real life and especially not in film noir.

Despite a number of successful stickups, Bart and Laurie wind up living in isolation with no one to turn to, nowhere to go and certainly not an overabundance of wealth. The lack of belonging they feel is accented by the carnival costumes they wear during one heist, increasingly shoddy accommodations and Bart's sense of disbelief that he could become so disconnected from what he once was. "It's just that everything's going so fast, it's all in such high gear, sometimes it doesn't feel like if nothing were real anymore," he laments. In her insightful essay "Woman's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir" (WOMEN IN FILM NOIR, British Film Institute, 1978), Sylvia Harvey explains how alienation is a theme central to GUN CRAZY (and other film noirs):  "...the isolation of the couple as well as their nonconformity to certain social norms is emphasized by the way in which they are presented as outsiders to the family and family life. Taking refuge with Bart's family at the end of the film, they so clearly do not belong; they constitute a violent eruption into the ordered patterns of family life" (p. 31). That sequence stresses the difference between Laurie and Bart's sister Ruby, but is not exactly flattering to the honest working class. Ruby embodies the dignified, law-abiding citizen, yet appears trapped in an impoverished household. She spends most of her time wearing a smock in the kitchen in selfless care of her children and their friends. That is not to assume the filmmakers side with her antithesis Laurie, but the sequence does provide food for thought as to why Laurie chose a different path. Especially to a modern audience, it is difficult to imagine female viewers feeling envious of Ruby's position in her incredibly modest home with never-ending chores. The "best shots" with guns in genre films tend to be on the right side of the law, but that is not the case in the universe suggested by GUN CRAZY, where honest work appears to offer little reward. The film takes on its tragic element when Bart refuses to turn himself in to his childhood pals, who both have become more traditional contributors to small town Americana (a cop and a journalist). The tragedy is culminated when Bart, who swore he never would kill a living thing again, feels obligated to kill the thing he loves most. Just beforehand, Bart himself acknowledges the story's tragic component when he declares he "...wouldn't have it any other way."

A number of sequences are sure to play quite differently to modern viewers than they must have to folks who caught GUN CRAZY in theaters back in 1950. In light of the many mass shootings at public schools that have gained national attention in recent years, the scene that shows a middle-school-aged Bart proudly showing his six-gun to fascinated classmates has an unsettling tone, especially when he refuses to give up the revolver to his teacher! Another moment that defies modern logic is the unthinkably dangerous carnival shooting competition between Bart and Laurie.

Come on baby light my fire

The overarching message regarding guns supports today's liberal convictions. Bart would have been much better off had he been kept clear of firearms as a child. Compulsive shooting converted him into an adult man with no other appreciable skill set, an ironically useless figure as a gun expert who cannot kill. The only thing he can do better than the next guy leads him to his fatalistic carnival matchup with Laurie, the instrument of his destruction. Both Bart and Laurie feel compelled to shoot people when scared; the only difference is Bart is better able to hold that feeling in check than the clearly more unstable Laurie. Remove the gun from the situation, and any socially problematic temptation goes along with it. In the final act, Clyde and Dave go without guns to the home of Bart's sister in an attempt to convince their old friend to surrender to local authorities.

The screenplay written by MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo (front Millard Kaufman) is based on the short story of the same title by Kantor (THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, February 3rd, 1940). Before its release with the title we know today, director Joseph H. Lewis's landmark film noir was released in January of 1950 as DEADLY IS THE FEMALE. The original theatrical release did not inspire an enthusiastic following and was re-titled GUN CRAZY in August of the same year. The botched nature of the two-tiered release meant the film would not be respected as the classic it is until film noir was rediscovered by American audiences in the 1970s. The other noir credits of director Joseph H. Lewis include the surprise hit MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946), CRY OF THE HUNTED (1953) and the exceptional title of noir's late stages, THE BIG COMBO (1955). There is little doubt GUN CRAZY should be regarded as his most important film in regard to effective storytelling, technical achievement and memorable performances. For several sequences, Lewis's camera was placed in the back seat of the outlaw couple’s vehicle, which brings a certain voyeuristic complicity into play as the viewer is manipulated to identify with the protagonists. When it later becomes apparent the crimes of Bart and Laurie will not go unpunished, that camera placement is traded for more traditional objectivity. In perhaps the best realized vehicular sequence, Bart finds himself unable to shoot at the cops in hot pursuit of his getaway car. The motif of water is significant to a great many film noirs, as it definitely is in this case. The opening credits are accompanied by heavy rainfall, and the accumulated storm water contributes to a would-be gun thief's capture by a local flatfoot. The story concludes in murky swamp water, where the conclusion takes place as prior events dictate. Beyond the many serious themes to be found in GUN CRAZY is an occasional dose of humor, as when an employee in a diner acknowledges his establishment's coffee tastes awful. One particularly dark moment of humor occurs when an impatient driver behind Bart and Laurie inadvertently helps propel the robbers across the California state line. The implication is that the fugitives from justice are relatively minor inconveniences to the average person, who cares only about himself. 

Cinematographer Russell Harlan's other noir efforts were limited, i.e. SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 (1950), THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950) and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (1954), but he captured the visuals for some of the most famous films in other genres, including RED RIVER (1948), RIO BRAVO (1959), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). The iconic screen captures below are representative of his high quality work.

I think it is fair to conclude GUN CRAZY would not have been quite the same movie without the presence of Peggy Cummins. She was just a little gal (listed as 5' 1" at  IMDb), but she carries herself much taller in the role of Annie Laurie Starr, easily among the most physically striking of film noir's many bad blonde babes. Her character looks simultaneously sexy and scary when she brandishes a gun at her workplace, and ultimately cuts down the battle-ax boss who objected to female employees who show up for work in slacks. Justifiable murder? Absolutely not, but it is undeniably satisfying to watch Cummins dominate the scene in her unforgettable role.

Ready for 2018, GUN CRAZY arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Archive with what seems like a long overdue 1080p HD Master transfer, handsomely framed at the aspect ratio of 1.345:1. This dual-layered disc looks tremendous in motion. Close-ups boast a particular wow factor. This is one of the year's obvious must-haves for film noir followers. The improvement in resolution versus the old Warner DVD is easy to see—just flip back and forth between the following screen captures.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

The audio commentary track was ported from the DVD released in 2006 as part of Warner's first FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION box set. On the mic is noted film reviewer Glenn Erickson, whose review page and columns can be found at Erickson describes the detours the film took from its source material, and offers a well-prepared script that highlights the accomplishments of all the major contributors. Beyond the usual historical analysis, his close study of the piece of art at hand is admirable. He draws our attention to the clever camerawork that covers the planned separation of Bart and Laurie after their last big score. After the two lovers circle back to each other, the camera that tracks them becomes an attachment to Bart's vehicle, which prompts the viewer to join the couple. It is a great moment, and it parallels nicely with the Hampton robbery, when the camera was positioned in the backseat for the entire robbery sequence. Erickson believes the hotel sequence in Santa Monica bears all the hallmarks of a reshoot, given the noticeable downgrade in writing quality and the exaggerated emphasis on the couple's guilt. He notes this scene consistently prompts laughter during screenings. Erickson may be correct that the scene was an add-on, but I've always liked the childlike questions Bart asks Laurie:  "Why do you have to murder people? Why can't you let them live?" It is the dialog of a man who never properly developed into adulthood. Another good observation from Erickson involves the fugitive couple's return to a carnival environment, which emphasizes the realistic notion that small-time hoodlums, despite all of their big plans, are likely to remain small-time.

A welcome supplement to this Blu-ray edition is the documentary "Film-Noir:  Bringing Darkness to Light" (2006, 67m 37s), produced and directed by Gary Leva. Originally released on a supplemental disc included with Warner's FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION:  VOL. 3 DVD set, the clips are limited to Warner releases, though the noir discussion touches all bases and the large assembly of contributors is outstanding. Among the dozens of people interviewed are some of the most important voices in the study of noir, including Drew Casper, Glenn Erickson, Eddie Muller, Paul Schrader, Alain Silver and James Ursini. Crucial noir catalysts are given their due, including key literary influences such as Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler, the imported visual approach of German Expressionism and the many lessons learned from World War II. Muller notes the noir examples of the 1940s often encouraged viewers to identify with those on the wrong side of the law, unlike the gangster films of the 1930s that maintained some distance from their arch criminals. A strong sense of moral ambiguity envelops a highly fatalistic atmosphere as the noir story explores the aftermath of crime more than crime itself. Plenty of time is afforded to the interesting nuances of noir, such as the use of narration, efficient camera setups, stylized light patterns that compliment dark moods, appropriately nocturnal settings (often in urban locales, thought not always), wonderfully subversive innuendo, wild femme fatales and the frustrated feeling of entrapment experienced by the characters. Famously foul-mouthed author James Ellroy probably makes the most dead-on observation when he mentions the "psychological frailty" of noir characters.

Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr each fall into Ellroy's category of the psychologically frail. Laurie doubtless is the more unbalanced of the two, but ultimately each is done in by an inability to think like logical people. GUN CRAZY marked the beginning of the 1950s, the second decade of film noir. Future characters of the genre would seem even less capable of making sound decisions than those who came before them. The neurotics of the new decade would give way to the most famous psycho of all in 1960:  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Alfred Hitchcock's noir-stained PSYCHO, which marked the end of the classic film noir era and the birth of a new era of horror, when monsters were replaced by monstrous personalities.