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Bart Tare is a troubled young boy with a fascination for guns growing up in a poor rural environment. When he smashes a window and steals a pistol, he's sent to reform school. Years later, he meets a carnival sharpshooter, Annie Laurie Starr, and the attraction between the two as they engage in a shooting contest is electric. They run off together to start fresh, but Annie Laurie's manipulations and demands for a better life lead them into criminal activity. Their lives spiral out of control as they pull off more robberies and, against Bart's wishes, end up killing people. The two lovers try to outrun their fate, but the law soon catches up to them.

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Producers: Frank & Maurice King
Screenplay: MacKinlay Kantor, Dalton Trumbo (fronted by Millard Kaufman), based on the story by MacKinlay Kantor
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: Harry Gerstad
Production Design: Gordon Wiles
Original Music: Victor Young
Cast: Peggy Cummins (Annie Laurie Starr), John Dall (Barton Tare), Berry Kroeger (Packett), Morris Carnovsky (Judge Willoughby), Anabel Shaw (Ruby Tare Flagler)

Why GUN CRAZY Is Essential

Not many B pictures can lay claim to "essential" status, but then again, not many were made by someone like Joseph H. Lewis, a director who could raise uninteresting and mediocre low-budget fare to the level of art. With Gun Crazy Lewis had something more substantial to work with-a taut script about two of society's misfits who bond over their mutual fixation on firearms and take off on a crime spree-and he made the utmost of it. Nearly 20 years before Bonnie and Clyde (1967) brought a startling change to mainstream American cinema, Gun Crazy was already there, little seen by audiences for decades until its rediscovery made it one of the great cult films of all time.

Audiences may have missed the movie the first time around, but diehard film buffs and aspiring filmmakers who happened to stumble upon it over the years were enthralled with its electric atmosphere, expressionistic lighting, tight close-ups, off-beat camera angles, and long takes, especially its justly famous bank robbery sequence, filmed from the back of a Cadillac in a single shot that never even goes inside the bank. Director Martin Scorsese has called the picture "unrelenting and involving," and Francois Truffaut arranged a screening of it for David Newman and Robert Benton, the writers of Bonnie and Clyde, so that its sensibility and style might inform their screenplay.

Truffaut, of course, got his start with the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema as one of a group of radical new critics who greatly admired the energy and spirit of American B pictures. Truffaut first put forth the "politiques des auteurs," which became known in the U.S. as the auteur theory, the notion that the best films bear the mark of their directors as true authors of the work. Joseph H. Lewis, especially in this picture, certainly attests to that. Scholars and film critics who have dismissed the auteur theory over the years frequently claim that no single person can be held up as the sole author in a highly collaborative art form, particularly during the tightly top-down controlled environment of the studio system, and rightly point to the contributions of writers, cinematographers and other artists involved in any given project. On this picture, however, it's hard to argue that the overall final vision does not belong to Lewis, who took many liberties with the script that was presented to him to shoot (see Behind the Camera) and imbued it with his own highly developed visual flair. Russell Harlan, who shot this picture, certainly proved himself an outstanding cinematographer in his long and distinguished career, but he was never known before or since for the camera flourishes we see in this film, part of a style Lewis brought to his projects that went beyond mere flash to create a charged and tense narrative.

Gun Crazy has one other claim to a place in American film history. During the dark political time of the late 1940s and into the 1950s, a group of writers and directors who became known as the Hollywood 10 refused to cooperate with the Congressional investigating committee trying to ferret out communists in the film industry. They were cited for contempt of Congress, jailed, and along with others in the business, including many actors, were blacklisted from film work. One of the most prominent of these was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He was hired to work on the script for this picture in great secrecy right after his appearance before the committee. Trumbo's involvement with Gun Crazy, apparently hidden even from Lewis himself, is a significant study of how once successful artists were forced to work for greatly diminished compensation under pseudonyms or "fronted" by non-controversial writers who agreed to put their names in the credits.

If a case ever has to be made that low-budget pictures can be considered important works of film art, Gun Crazy is an appropriate movie to offer up as evidence, the perfect example of what brings film lovers to hail certain B movies for their daring, pace, and primitive emotions expressed in bold cinematic terms outside the "tasteful" restraints of major studio releases.

by Rob Nixon

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