An Appreciation – Gun Crazy

Annie can be described as a “femme fatale,” a female noir character who uses their sexuality to lure men to their bidding. I’ve always been a little wary about using the label “femme fatale” to describe female characters in noir, as it leads to the assumption that they are merely “spider women” whose sole motivation is to bring doom to the male protagonists. It’s a reductive way of thinking. Annie certainly does use her sexuality to get Bart to do what she wants, but within this context it’s done as a means for survival. Annie desires excitement, luxury, and wealth. She won’t be pushed around by others, and will do whatever is necessary for the big score. While Bart is torn between his love for guns and his disgust for violence, Annie is a realist. Annie understands the stakes and accepts them, she knows if things turn for the worst desperate measures need to be taken. Bart fights with his inner demons while Annie embraces them with open arms. She is in the power position in this relationship, and Bart’s lust for her causes him to do anything for her approval, even robbing people at gunpoint. In the world of noir, Annie doesn’t function as a subservient housewife, she can be just as a bad and greedy as everyone else.

The narrative moves at a breakneck pace. Lewis wastes no time dilly-dallying. Most scenes last only a few minutes and then quickly transitions to the next. Before we get comfortable with Bart and Annie, they’ve already jumped headfirst into crime. The cinematography contains the classic noir style: the chiaroscuro adopted from German expressionism. Sharp contrasts between light and dark populate many of the visuals, particularly when Bart and Annie go on the run from the authorities. But given that Gun Crazy was released right in the middle of the noir era (early ‘40s to mid/late ‘50s), we start seeing a gradual transition into modern aesthetics. You can see it happening on screen. Lewis elects to shoot many sequences on location: in broad daylight, opting for a kind of realism akin to documentaries. It lends to the immediacy of the suspense – seeing Bart and Annie try to escape capture while moving in real locations creates a tangible effect.

Gun Crazy Movie Still 3

The most famous action sequence is the Hampton Heist in which Bart and Annie drive up to a bank in the middle of the day, rob it, and take off in their getaway vehicle. The scene takes place in one unbroken shot, lasting over three and half minutes, all from the backseat of the car. We watch as though we’re the third accomplice to the robbery, witnessing Bart get out of the vehicle and enter the bank. Lewis raises the stakes by inserting a lonely police officer on patrol just outside the main entrance. In an effort to keep the officer distracted, Annie jumps out of the car and strikes up a conversation with him. Notice how the camera pushes forward and pans to the right, it’s as though we are leaning over the front seat to hear what the two are talking about. When the alarm goes off and Bart runs out of the building, Annie knocks out the officer, then they hop back in the car (with the camera returning to the backseat) and drive off at high speed. Watch Annie’s face as she turns back to see if anyone is following them. Her excited look goes beyond monetary greed. She isn’t so much interested in the heist as she is in the thrill.

It’s a stunning bit of filmmaking, elegant in execution but gritty in tone. The delay in action draws us in to see what happens. Lewis takes a small detour away from what we normally would expect from a noir story. The scene doesn’t take place at night, and the fact that it’s happening in real time allows for spontaneity – anything could happen. There’s innovation happening before our eyes that helped open the form, allowing for more creativity in staging and execution. Even more impressive: Lewis repeats this unbroken shot at least two more times before the end credits roll.

Gun Crazy Movie Still 4

One the requirements of the Production Code called for criminal behavior to be punished. Bad people weren’t allowed to get away scot-free. One would assume this would handcuff filmmakers from telling certain stories, but what it actually did was allow them to play around with the definition of “good” and “bad.” The limitation worked in noir’s favor – filmmakers swerved around the problem by simply making the criminals the lead characters. Crooks scheme, but usually their planning end in tragedy. Seeing the main characters fall prey to their own weaknesses serves as a cautionary tale, telling us that cutting corners or giving in to temptation never work out. Bart and Annie are no different. As soon as they start robbing people, we know they’re treading a dangerous path. By the time their heists turn violent, their fate has been sealed.

As more years pass, the regard for Gun Crazy has only grown. It represents the very pinnacle of what film noir was all about: an uncompromising look at the darkness of humanity, the torment of wealth and sex – done in a style cemented in a particular time and place. It’s often imitated but rarely duplicated, but whose effects continue to reverberate.

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Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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