An Appreciation – Gun Crazy
What makes film noir so fascinating is how tied in it is to history. Of all the different styles, movements, and trends that have existed in cinema, noir is placed so firmly into the culture of the mid 20th century that it’s difficult not to examine it without that context. There was this incredible melding of different societal issues that took place nearly simultaneously – resulting in an explosion of creativity seeped in the darker side of human nature. How it all came together is almost bewildering. There was the disillusionment of WWII, more women entering the work force, the migration of European directors to America, the rise in popularity of the crime novel, the lingering effects of the Great Depression – they all merged to create one of most interesting and studied of all film techniques.
You would think that right after the war, films would take a lighter approach, but it turns out the opposite was true. Many felt a growing cynicism as the horror of the war came to light. This lead to an increase of small budget crime dramas that had a darker tone in subject matter and visual style. Characters often lived on the opposite side of the law, and held a more ambiguous moral compass. Criminals became the protagonists. Cops and detectives had dirtier personalities, even turning to corruption to have their way. This was different than the gangster pictures of the 1930s – more psychological, more desperate. Falling in love didn’t mean “happily ever after,” it meant a one-way ticket to the slammer or the grave. And above all was greed: greed for money, greed for sex, or both.
Noir is a means to examine humanity under intense duress. It boils our desires, fantasies, and nightmares to their fundamentals. We all want a better life and fall in love, but how far do we go to attain that? There is a fine line between good and evil, and that is where noir works best. Of all the films that can be labeled under this category, Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) stands as one of the most provocative. Not only does it break the normal conventions of narrative storytelling, it breaks the normal conventions of noir itself. It tells the tale of two criminal lovers on the run without wasting the time to explain their disturbing behavior. Before Jean-Luc Godard redefined what it meant to be “cool” in Breathless (1960), and before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lit up the screen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there was Gun Crazy.
It’s a love story about two troubled youngsters, both with a deep obsession with guns. If there were an example of how sex is translated on screen without depicting the physical act of intercourse, this would be it. Guns are a classic cinematic symbol for sex (the phallic representations I’m sure you can discern). The relationship between Bart (John Dall) and Annie (Peggy Cummins) can be described as an animalistic one. They act upon their primal lust for each other, and for their skill at gunplay. The script (written by MacKinlay Kantor and a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) makes no effort to explain their deviancy. It subverts our expectations, creating two people defined by their actions. While some may accuse this as being thin on character development, I find that it adds to the film’s intrigue. Lewis and the rest of the production don’t bother giving us some two-bit explanation. In fact, to give one would be asking us to sympathize with them, which doesn’t work once they start on their crime spree.
But just because Bart and Annie aren’t sympathetic doesn’t make them any less captivating. They are colorful and charismatic, and their doomed romance moves with electricity. Early on, we see that they are not like normal people. Bart is a conflicted character. He is deeply drawn to guns; the opening scene shows a flashback of him as a child breaking into a store to steal one. He shows a knack for shooting, and has precision accuracy. Bart gets into trouble when he brings his gun to school to show his friends (a scene more shocking when viewed today). Despite his affinity for gunplay, Bart expresses a disdain for killing, which makes for a strange contradiction. When his friends peer pressure him to shoot an animal, Bart shows resentment and guilt for it. When he grows up he enters the army but joins a division that keeps him out of combat, although he participates in shooting competitions.
John Dall plays Bart with a welcoming, almost friendly demeanor. With his thin frame and soft features, Dall was the right choice to portray a morally confused character. That quality proves to be his undoing when he meets Annie, a sharp shooter performing at a traveling carnival. Annie’s first appearance is one of the great introductions of the movies, as she blasts into frame during a performance, guns firing into the air. Lewis (and cinematographer Russell Harlan) captured Annie in close up from Bart’s perspective. Once Annie fires a blank shot directly into the camera followed by Bart’s reaction, we realize he never stood a chance – it was love at first sight. The following sequence, in which Annie and Bart compete to see who is the better shooter, is metaphorically a love scene. Watch their faces as they interact, smiling and winking and giving side-glances as they shoot rounds against each other, they’re practically flirting. In a time where the Production Code prohibited sexuality on screen, the filmmakers created a scene that borders on the erotic.