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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
Gun Crazy (1950)
Gun Crazy is one of several films generally considered to be based on the lives and legends of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the notorious bank-robbing couple of the 1930s who met their death together in a hail of bullets after eluding law enforcement for several years. Certainly, it's a notable addition to a very specialized sub-genre of movies about fugitive young lovers, including You Only Live Once, Persons in Hiding (1939), They Live by Night, The Getaway (1972), Badlands (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), and Natural Born Killers (1994), as well as the reputed (but in fact extremely loose) remake Guncrazy (1992).
The sweater and beret Peggy Cummins wears in this movie can be seen as an inspiration for Faye Dunaway's look in Bonnie and Clyde, more so than a direct reference to the real Bonnie Parker's similar style. Elizabeth Ward, an editor of The Film Noir Encyclopedia (Overlook, 2010), once interviewed Cummins and persuaded the actress to give her the sweater and beret. According to Glenn Erickson, who does the commentary on the DVD release of Gun Crazy, Ward wore the outfit for her photo on the back cover of her book.
Lewis has been justly praised for capturing the bank robbery scene in one long single take. It was not the first such filmmaking feat. Lewis himself had done a trial scene in Secrets of a Co-Ed in one long take, and Alfred Hitchcock made the long take the entire aesthetic basis for his thriller Rope, which featured Gun Crazy star John Dall. Previous single-take robbery scenes were seen in The Killers (1946) and They Live by Night. Lewis' innovation in this film was keeping the camera entirely inside the car for the sequence shot.
"Gun Crazy" is the title of an essay by Dorothy Allison from her collection Skin (Firebrand, 1994).
Gun Crazy is an EP released in 1993 by the Berkeley, California, punk rock band The Mr. T Experience.
"Gun Crazy" is a song from the White Zombie 1987 EP Psycho-Head Blowout, written by musician-filmmaker Rob Zombie.
by Rob Nixon
Gun Crazy (1950)
Director Joseph Lewis began his career as a camera assistant in the 1920s, moved to the editorial department at MGM in the next decade, apprenticed as a second unit director, and was given a full directing contract at Universal in 1937, where he earned the nickname "Wagon Wheel Joe" for his penchant for framing shots through the spokes of a wagon wheel to add some visual variety to the many B westerns he made. He worked steadily in feature films through the late 1950s, although a 1953 heart attack slowed down his output a little, creating thrillers, war movies, westerns, and at least one other film noir that has become a classic of the form, The Big Combo (1955). In 1959, he moved to television, directing episodes of The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley, among other series. He retired in 1966, spending the years until his death in August 2000 at age 93 lecturing and deep-sea fishing off his trawler.
Arguably the most talented and successful of the group of blacklisted film artists known as the Hollywood 10, Dalton Trumbo began as a writer of short stories and novels while still a young man in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, he was hired as a reader at Warner Bros., where he eventually began writing B-movie scripts. By the early 40s, he had moved up to prestigious productions, earning an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for the Ginger Rogers film Kitty Foyle (1940). He worked steadily through the decade as one of the most respected and highly paid writers in the business until he was blacklisted from the industry and jailed for ten months over his refusal before Congress to answer questions about his political activities and to name names of other film professionals who may have been members of the Communist Party. Despite this, he continued to turn out screenplays through the 1950s, either uncredited or fronted by a non-blacklisted writer. including the Oscar®-winning scripts for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), which were given to, respectively, front Ian McLellan Hunter and the non-existent Robert Rich, Trumbo's pseudonym. Those awards eventually carried Trumbo's name, but not for many years after Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger broke the blacklist by openly hiring him to write their respective films Spartacus (1960) and Exodus (1960). In 1971, he adapted and directed his anti-war novel of the 1930s, Johnny Got His Gun for the big screen. Dalton Trumbo died in 1976 at the age of 70.
Although he was actually only a front for Dalton Trumbo on this project, Millard Kaufman was a respected writer with several notable screenplays to his credit, including Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Raintree County (1957). His first novel, A Bowl of Cherries was published in 2007, two years before his death at the age of 92.
Russell Harlan had a long career (1937-1970) as a respected cinematographer, earning six Academy Award nominations for his work, including two in the same year: in the color category for the John Wayne film Hatari! (1962) and in black-and-white for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). He worked his way up from stunt man in quickie westerns to shooting them. His most fruitful professional association was with director Howard Hawks, for whom he shot seven films, including the classic westerns Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959).
Composer Victor Young's music has graced more than 200 pictures and earned 22 Academy Award nominations. He finally won for the last of these, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).
Born in Wales in 1925, Peggy Cummins is still alive (as of this 2012 article) and has occasionally appeared to speak at screenings of her work. Her career started with some promise in the early 1940s, but after she was let go as the lead in the period drama Forever Amber (1947), she never made it to major stardom. She retired from acting in 1964.
John Dall's film career also never quite took off from its early promise, even though he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his screen debut opposite Bette Davis in The Corn Is Green (1945). One of his most famous roles was as half of the murderous duo based on Leopold and Loeb in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. After Gun Crazy he worked mostly on stage and occasionally on television, making only sporadic screen appearances, such as his role as Glabrus in Spartacus (1960). He died in 1971 at the age of 52, officially of a heart attack, although some reports claim his demise was the result of a punctured lung.
While casting for the part of the teenage Bart, Lewis noticed one boy sitting outside his office and asked his secretary to send in the one "with the big black eyes." It was Rusty Tamblyn, and Lewis never auditioned any of the other kids. Tamblyn had appeared in a handful of movies before this and would work steadily throughout the next two decades, eventually becoming known as Russ Tamblyn and appearing in such major productions as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Peyton Place (1957), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and West Side Story (1961). Roles became scarcer in the late 70s and into the 80s, but he had a resurgence with a recurring role on David Lynch's surreal TV series Twin Peaks in 1990-91, and he has continued to work since then, including several appearances on the TV show Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005), which starred his daughter, Amber Tamblyn.
Dalton Trumbo wasn't the only blacklisted member of this production. Around the time of the release of this film and three others he made the same year, including Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), Morris Carnovsky, who plays Judge Willoughby, was named by both Elia Kazan and Sterling Hayden as a communist and banned from motion pictures. A successful stage actor and founding member of the Group Theater in the 1930s, he did not appear in another Hollywood film until The Gambler (1974). He died in 1992 at the age of 94.
Nedrick Young, who plays Bart's journalist friend Dave Allister, appeared in 29 films but had a second, more prominent career as a writer. Also the victim of the infamous blacklist, Young wrote 11 screenplays, winning an Academy Award for his work on The Defiant Ones (1958) and nominated for his adaptation of Inherit the Wind (1960), both under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas.
by Rob Nixon
Gun Crazy (1950)
The story of the development of the script for Gun Crazy is not always so clear cut, thanks to the circumstances of the Hollywood Blacklist, when film industry professionals were drummed out of the business for refusing to answer questions before Congress about their left-wing political activities and to name the names of possible Communist Party members. Even as late as 1968, when Peter Bogdanovich first interviewed him, director Joseph H. Lewis talked about Millard Kaufman working with him on the screenplay, when in fact Kaufman was just a front for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Bogdanovich spoke to Lewis again in 1994, by which time Trumbo had been dead almost 20 years and his blacklisted credits largely restored, but neither Lewis nor Bogdanovich corrected the information; the book containing the interviews, Who the Devil Made It (Knopf, 1997), made no mention of Trumbo's part in the production.
The source material for the film was a ten-page Saturday Evening Post story by novelist MacKinlay Kantor (Andersonville, Glory for Me, which became the film The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946).
According to Bruce Cook's 1977 biography of Dalton Trumbo, the idea for the picture began with the King brothers-Frank, Maurice, and Herman-who supported themselves early on as bootleggers and got into motion pictures at the end of Prohibition. Their first jobs were under contract to Poverty Row studios PRC and then Monogram, where they had a big hit (on a small budget) as producers of the crime biography Dillinger (1945). The success of that film convinced them to go independent, but their first release, The Gangster (1947), was a disappointment. They were shopping around for new projects, and new talent, around the time of the first House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings.
According to Cook, Frank King contacted Trumbo the day after the writer returned from the hearings in Washington, where he had been cited for contempt of Congress for being one of several people (soon to be known as the Hollywood Ten) who refused to answer the committee's questions. Trumbo realized he would likely not find work at any of the major studios, despite having been one of the most sought-after and successful screenwriters in Hollywood before the political debacle. The Kings realized it, too, and as Frank said later, "We just had a short budget to make a picture and saw this as an opportunity to get a fine writer to work for us whom we could not otherwise afford."
The Kings offered Trumbo a modest $3,750 to be paid to him over a period of 18 months. In debt and facing legal expenses for his contempt appeal (he would eventually go to jail for ten months), Trumbo quickly accepted. "A lot of independents never paid more than that," Trumbo is quoted in Cook's book. "When I and others plummeted in value, we naturally found ourselves in this new market, and naturally these independent producers availed themselves of our services because they felt that for this money, they could get better work. So there wasn't really this brutal exploitation of black market writers that has sometimes been referred to."
The decision to use a front as the screenplay credit was not only to protect the Kings but Trumbo himself, who was still hoping to legally force MGM to reinstate his contract or make a settlement, so he could not be seen to be violating that contract in any way by working elsewhere. Writer Millard Kaufman offered his name as the front.
According to director Joseph H. Lewis in his 1968 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the Kings approached him with a 375-page script (roughly five hours of screen time) that MacKinlay Kantor had written based on his own story. Lewis said it was his task to trim it down to a filmable 140 pages, which he claimed Millard Kaufman did. In Danny Peary's book Cult Movies (Dell, 1981), he quotes a conversation he had with Lewis about Kantor's script: "It was a good story with the characters well laid out. And it served as the basis for the film. But we had to cut it down, and I used a director's prerogative to embellish it a bit. I can honestly say that I made the film twice as good as the Kantor script. But he never spoke to me again." Neither Peary nor Lewis make any mention of Trumbo's part in the writing.
So was Lewis simply unaware of Trumbo's involvement, even as late as the 1960s and 70s? Glenn Erickson, who provides the commentary on the Gun Crazy DVD, supposes Lewis never knew Kaufman was fronting for Trumbo because he never said anything to the contrary, even when it was no longer necessary to cover it up. Other reports have stated that no one involved in the production knew Trumbo was writing it, and that Lewis only ever dealt with Kaufman.
Several changes were made to the original story before it was brought to the screen. In print, the tale was told entirely as a series of newspaper reports by Bart's friend Dave, who remained in the adaptation to screen, although in a much diminished capacity. The two main characters in the story are named Nelson and Antoinette (not Bart and Annie Laurie) and are never married (a change necessitated by the Production Code). In fact, her character does not appear all the way through the story, and much of the ending is only about Nelson. The scene of the boys trying to shoot a mountain lion in the movie was originally a rabbit hunt in the snow.
by Rob Nixon
Gun Crazy (1950)
According to an item in the Hollywood Reporter around the time of production, Lewis had sought Veronica Lake for the female lead. He went instead with a young British actress, Peggy Cummins, then under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, which was trying to dump her after bad notices for her performance in Moss Rose (1947). Lewis told author-critic Danny Peary that he asked a cutter at the studio to let him see pre-release dailies from Moss Rose. "I thought she was devastatingly beautiful and talented and that the fault for the picture's failure belonged to the director and producer." He said he and Cummins had lunch five days in a row and talked about Gun Crazy and much else. He became convinced she was a "terrific actress" and right for the role. According to Lewis' interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the dailies he watched were from the film Forever Amber (1947), in which Cummins was replaced as the lead by Linda Darnell, and their meetings and chats lasted three weeks, not five days.
For the main male role, Lewis made what must have seemed an odd choice at the time. John Dall was tall, lanky, "a bit too introspective for leads" (Peary). His last role had been one of the two apparently gay killers modeled on Leopold and Loeb in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948). "A director thinks in many ways," Lewis told Peary. "For the character of Bart I wanted an actor who by osmosis or scent or whatever projected an inner weakness. I decided to cast a gay in the part. [Dall was, in fact, a gay man, which must have been known to at least some people in Hollywood for Lewis to make this assessment.] I didn't have to tell John Dall how to play Bart or that I wanted him to express Bart's weakness. I knew he'd betray himself. Subtly and gently."
Peary excuses Lewis' equating Dall's gayness to Bart's weakness by suggesting the director may have meant to imply an ongoing struggle within the character "in regard to self-identity and self-definition." At any rate, Lewis apparently didn't think the character of Bart was gay. In the shooting contest sequence at the carnival, for example, Lewis wanted the sexual attraction between Bart and Laurie to come across very strongly, so he told Dall, "Your cock's never been so hard." He said he told Cummins, "You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting." Lewis said that was the only direction he had to give his stars to get exactly what he wanted.
Dall and Cummins did all their own driving in the film, and according to Lewis, only one process shot (i.e., rear projection behind the actors pretending to drive) was used in the entire film.
Lewis made several changes to the script as he shot it. The script calls for the police, the dogs, and the cop cars to be seen as they surround Bart and Laurie in the climactic swamp scene, but Lewis decided to keep the camera on the couple with only the sounds of their pursuers coming out of the mist. On the page, Bart and Laurie were meant to separate after the meat-packing plant robbery, but Lewis decided to have them stop short in the cars they were driving in the opposite direction and, in broad daylight with the police closing in, run into each other's arms and drive off together, leaving one of their getaway vehicles in the road.
Because of his small budget and relatively short production schedule, Lewis employed a number of B-movie techniques to tell his story, e.g., inserting objects, such as FBI teletypes, to shorthand the series of minor hold-ups the couple embarks on. He also found ways to add greater tension and drama and keep the picture quickly moving forward in spite of the limitations, such as alternating deep focus compositions with many tight close-ups and cross-cutting Dall and Cummins both in right profile as they bicker. He often has the two facing away from each other or from the camera at moments of high conflict.
Lewis also employed unbalanced, off-kilter compositions to emphasize the instability and isolation of the characters. A good example of this is the close-up of the young Bart's face half off screen at the end of the gun theft scene and his placement at the window in deep-focus in the background of the courtroom scene.
The most talked-about and written-about sequence in the movie is considered exemplary of Lewis' ability to infuse a B picture with a distinctive sensibility and a visual and narrative flair-the single-take bank robbery scene. Lewis, of course, did not invent the use of a single long take to portray an entire sequence of actions. Orson Welles had made bold use of the technique in his groundbreaking Citizen Kane (1941), a film Lewis said inspired him. Lewis himself had executed a striking single-take crane shot of a trial sequence in Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942). His innovation here, however, was keeping the camera inside the car as Dall runs into the bank to execute the robbery and Cummins tries to distract a police officer on the street outside.
The 17-page bank robbery sequence was scheduled for a three-to-five-day shoot with numerous camera set-ups, but Lewis decided he didn't want to do it the conventional way. He told the producers he could pull it off in a single day with one shot that never entered the bank. Since that would cut down on production time and eliminate the need for a bank set, the idea appealed to their budget consciousness, but he still had to prove to them it was possible. So he did a test run with extras using his own 16mm camera.
To get the shot entirely from inside the car, the back of it was stripped out and replaced by boards and a jockey's saddle. The boards were greased so the camera could easily slide and change angles. Lewis and several crew members were crammed into the back. The only lights they had for the actors were two small key lights operating off batteries. The sound was recorded with microphones hidden in the sun visors. To get the dialogue on the sidewalk when Laurie gets out to distract the cop, Lewis placed two sound men with boom mics on the roof; they were strapped up there the entire time the car drove up to the bank and sped off.
Rather than blocking off the street for the robbery sequence, Lewis had Dall and Cummins drive around looking for a place to park, improvising their dialogue the entire time.
The production cost roughly $400,000 and took 30 days to shoot.
by Rob Nixon
Gun Crazy (1950)
Gun Crazy (1950) is an extraordinary film.
I don't mean good, although it is that. Let's take "good" as a given. Critical raves are attracted to it like flies. It has been repeatedly hailed as a film noir classic, singled out for revivals and retrospectives. In 1971 Paul Schrader called it "one of the best American films ever made." The authors of Alternate Oscars argue it should have won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1998, Congress placed it on the National Film Registry, an honor given only to those films deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 2006, Film Comment included it among the magazine's 60-picture canon. Richard Schickel of Time Magazine named it one of the All-Time 100 Movies. The list goes on-you get the point.
By "extraordinary" what I mean is that it does something that it shouldn't, something beyond the ordinary. It is a meticulously engineered work of cinema that is nevertheless remembered as being a raw pseudo-documentary. It stars two actors whose nervous tics and unusual faces denied them stardom, but who deliver career-best performances here. The script is a bundle of familiar clichs, assembled by one of the era's most accomplished screenwriters. It was filmed by a brilliant cinematographer, yet looks nothing like his work. It was made under the thumb of repressive censorship, but is as transgressive and audacious as anything today. It sank at the box office, but became a cult favorite more beloved than its contemporaries. In sum, Gun Crazy is more than the sum of its parts.
For this, the credit must go to director Joseph H. Lewis. Sadly his name has not joined that of Hitchcock and Lang, Lubitsch and Capra, or even Ulmer and Corman. Like them he was a visionary director who stamped his own indelible personality on the films he touched, but unlike them has been overlooked by posterity.
Lewis started out, as so many did, dreaming of being a movie star. This was back in the days of silent film-he saw himself as the next Rudolf Valentino. Unlike other wannabes, he had an "in." His brother Ben was an editor at Metro, and finagled Joseph an unglamorous entry-level job loading film into camera magazines. A combination of raw ambition, sheer moxie, and an almost autistic imperviousness to social conventions helped Joseph leap up the career ladder until he was a director-of title sequences. He brought a rich imagination to shooting main titles, which he considered akin to making "a short story to catch an audience."
From there it was a short transition to making whole movies to go along with those opening titles. Joseph Lewis quickly made a name for himself, albeit not entirely a good one, for doing "screwy things" with the camera. "Wagon Wheel Joe" they called him, for his habit of shooting quickie Westerns through the spokes of a wagon wheel. He'd turn ordinary plot exposition scenes into grandiose one-take set pieces full of elaborate choreography. He'd position the camera to stare at the action from some bizarre off-kilter angle. At first it was just a question of using inventive camerawork to enliven weak scripts and ennoble clumsy acting. As he found himself with better scripts and stronger actors, though, he started to think of himself as a movie impressionist. He gave little thought to accepted practice, and was always on the hunt for a new way of visualizing his material.
To see how Gun Crazy came into being, though, we need to step away from Lewis for a moment. Now it's time to meet the King Brothers, Maurice and Frank. They were independent producers with a savvy sense of exploitation. Throughout the 1940s they handled tough crime thrillers, and by the end of the 1950s they had moved on to distributing giant monster fare like Rodan (1956) and Gorgo (1961).
A story in the Saturday Evening Post caught their eye as possible movie fodder. Written by MacKinlay Kantor as a series of fictionalized newspaper clippings, it told the story of a young man obsessed with guns. He only feels alive when he has a gun in his hands. He's no murderer, though-he shoots things, not people. The Boy Meets Gun story turns into Boy Meets Girl with the arrival of a carnival sharpshooter with a killer body and a killer's instinct to match. It's love at first sight-but she wants more than their modest means can acquire. So she asks, why not put their gun collection and marksmanship to practical use as stick-up artists?
The brothers King bought the story from Kantor and asked for a screenplay adaptation from Millard Kaufman. Only many years later was it revealed that Kaufman was actually a front for blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It was the time of a fever pitched anti-Communist hysteria, you see, when a great many Hollywood professionals were forced out of work, jailed, or pushed into exile overseas, for their political sympathies. Trumbo received two Academy Awards during the blacklist era, neither one of them given to him under his real name. On Gun Crazy he toiled so far in the background that none of the production team even knew he was involved. Director Lewis met repeatedly with Kaufman, unaware that he was only collaborating with the screenwriter by proxy.
Between them, these writers both acknowledged and unseen assembled a story of a criminal couple on the lam, wanting to go straight after that one last big score... it was familiar stuff even then. That the story mixed sex and violence together until they became the same thing was part of the idea's power, but was not the sort of script likely to find favor with the censors. A few clumsy intrusions here and there were added, but these were just words. Director Lewis knew how to imbue images with an expressive force that had little use for words. In his hands, the timid censorial touches were quickly overwhelmed.
Take for example what became the most memorable sequence in the picture. As Lewis later told the story, some 17 pages of script were devoted to a bank heist by the couple. The production team expected to build a bank set, hire bit players and extras, and spend the better part of a week filming the robbery. But Lewis wasn't happy. What is the point of this scene? he asked himself. Nothing that happened in the bank really mattered to the plot... Lewis met with the producers and pitched an alternate idea. He wanted to bundle the camera crew into the back seat of a real car, filled with hidden microphones, and put stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins in the actual driver's seats. They would then drive, for real, down a real road in a real town, and look for parking alongside a real bank. Dall would run out of the car and into the bank, while the camera lingered behind with Cummins as she nervously awaited the outcome. He would return from his off-screen escapade, and they would speed off into traffic-all in one agonizingly tense take.
The King Brothers were intrigued by the idea, but there was one lone voice of dissent. One stubborn holdout insisted the scene simply could not be shot the way Lewis described. The skeptic probably expected Lewis to argue back about how, a decade earlier, he'd shot the courtroom scene of Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942) in a single take-as if that experience could possibly answer the enormous technical challenges of the bold innovation Lewis was proposing. Instead, Lewis simply took out a spool of film from his bag and threaded it up on the projector. Lewis had, on his own time and at his own expense, taken a 16mm camera out to shoot a test run of his idea as a proof of concept. The test footage showed exactly what Lewis had described-and it had a raw intensity unlike any bank robbery scene ever seen before. It became the signature scene of the movie.
In fact, it became so much an icon of Gun Crazy that the film is often misremembered as having a documentary feel throughout. There are moments like that heist sequence, or the meat-packing plant robbery later on, that do feel like some documentary crew tagged along on a real-life crime spree. The majority of the scenes though are as carefully composed as paintings. The opening sequence (a main titles sequence worthy of Lewis' past) sees 15-year-old Russ Tamblyn as a younger version of our main character, stealing a pistol from a shop window by seemingly breaking through the movie screen to grab it from the audience. Peggy Cummins is introduced as if she were the Roman God of Ammunition, rising into the frame with her trick guns blazing. The tragic finale finds our star-crossed lovers collapsing in a fog bank... such images are poetry, not realism.
Cinematographer Russell Harlan had worked his way up from being a stuntman in quickie Westerns, to shooting quickie Westerns, and from there to shooting important pictures by the likes of Howard Hawks. In the years to come, his resume would continue to bloat and glow-but the odd and interesting fact is that for all of Harlan's talent, his best movies are not marked by the ostentatious camera trickery of Gun Crazy. Harlan's camera in Gun Crazy was an extension of Lewis' imagination-an imagination that prided itself on making films that might as well be silent movies, for all their visual panache.
John Dall was an odd kind of leading man. He was certainly handsome enough for Hollywood, but his creepy smile and catalog of neurotic tics were not easily suppressed. He made a perfect choice for psychologically damaged sociopaths, like his breakout role in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope in 1948. Lewis turned Dall's drawbacks into advantages, and gave him a career-defining role. In the years that followed, sadly, casting directors rarely knew what to do with him.
Peggy Cummins was likewise a very talented actress boxed in by typecasting. She was a Welsh actress who tried her hands at all kinds of genre films in both England and America, but like Dall never found a role that used her better than in Gun Crazy.
The distributors at United Artists thought Lewis had made such a strong picture that it deserved a classier title than the pulpy "Gun Crazy." Against Lewis' objections, they released Deadly Is the Female at the beginning of 1950 to middling box office returns. Lewis felt that the changed title had robbed the film of its identity, and that nothing conveyed its contents better or more aggressively than Gun Crazy. In August of the same year it was given a second go-round under Lewis' preferred title, only to face objections from exhibitors that they didn't want to screen stale leftovers. As the year closed out, everyone looked with some disappointment that the movie had made so little money.
That disappointment was thankfully short-lived. Although UA had to swallow those box office figures and wonder about what might have been, the ensuring years were awfully kind to Gun Crazy. Its makers looked back on it as a creative high water mark, while audiences remembered it for its visceral strength. Peter Bogdanovich sat with Joseph Lewis in 1994 on Lewis' yacht as the old man crowed in triumph at how he had taken a meager $400,000 and 30 days of shooting time to put together a movie that had stood the test of time. Bogdanovich asked, "Do you have a favorite among your films?" Without hesitation, Lewis answered, "Gun Crazy." Bogdanovich asked the obvious follow up, "What's your second favorite?" Smiling, Lewis replied, "Gun Crazy."
Producer: Frank King, Maurice King
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: MacKinlay Kantor, Millard Kaufman, Dalton Trumbo
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Production Design: Gordon Wiles
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: Harry W. Gerstad
Cast: Peggy Cummins (Annie Laurie Starr), John Dall (Bart Tare), Berry Kroeger (Packett), Morris Carnovsky (Judge Willoughby), Anabel Shaw (Ruby Tare), Harry Lewis (Deputy Clyde Boston), Russ Tamblyn (Bart Tare, age 14).
by David Kalat
Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors
Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953
Glenn Erickson, audio commentary to the DVD Gun Crazy
Phil Hardy, The BFI Companion to Crime
David N. Meyer, A Girl and a Gun
Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir
Richard Schickel, "All Time 100 Movies," Time Magazine February 12, 2005
Arturo Silva, "Gun Crazy: Cinematic Amour Fou," New Republic
Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style
Gun Crazy (1950)
The distributors at United Artists thought so highly of the film that they decided the title Gun Crazy was too pulpy and, against Lewis' objections, released it early in 1950 under the title Deadly Is the Female. It did not do well at the box office and was pulled from distribution. In August of that year, it was re-released with its original title, but exhibitors balked that they were being fed a stale older picture. Ultimately, the film made little money.
In 1998, Gun Crazy was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the films preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
In his book of conversations with filmmakers Who the Devil Made It (Knopf, 1997), Peter Bogdanovich asked Joseph Lewis what his favorite film was. "Gun Crazy," Lewis replied. When asked his second favorite, Lewis replied again, " Gun Crazy."
"After a slow beginning, it generates considerable excitement.... Because of so much establishing footage, the picture seems long. Latter half, however, races along under Joseph H. Lewis' direction, being a continual chase broken only by new holdup jobs pulled by Dall and Cummins. Script points up the physical attraction between Dall and Cummins but, despite the emphasis, it is curiously cold and lacking in genuine emotions. Fault is in the writing and direction, both staying on the surface and never getting underneath the characters." - Variety, December 31, 1949
"The performances of John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy suggest the vitality of the American action movie despite its relative obscurity." - Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (Dutton, 1969)
"One of the best American films ever made." - Filmmaker Paul Schrader, 1971. In 1972, Schrader helped introduce British readers to film noir with an article he wrote in Film Comment and a film series with ten titles he picked to be the best representatives of the style. Gun Crazy was one of the ten.
"Few films are more singularly preoccupied with externals to the exclusion of attention to interior states. ... This makes for good visceral cinema, wherein characters express themselves exclusively through their actions. ... Of the four great renditions of the 'Bonnie and Clyde' tale (Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once, 1937; Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night, 1948; and Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Lewis' is paradoxically the most impressive and the least important. In choosing to render the story down to its leanest elements, Lewis achieves unique originality at a slightly lower level of profundity." - Myron Meisel, 1974, reprinted in Kings of the Bs (Dutton, 1975, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn)
"There is no point in overpraising Lewis. The limitations of the B picture lean on all his films. But the plunder he came away with is astonishing and-here is the rub-more durable than the output of many better-known directors." - David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf, 1994)
"Joseph H. Lewis's direction is propulsive, possessed of a confident, vigorous simplicity that all the frantic editing and visual pyrotechnics of the filmmaking progeny never quite surpassed." -Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998)
"The codes of the time prevented Lewis from being explicit about the extent to which their fast-blooming romance is fueled by their mutual love of weaponry (Arthur Penn would rip off the covers in Bonnie and Clyde, which owes Gun Crazy a substantial debt), but when Cummins' six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it's clear what really fills their collective tank." - Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper, 2004
"Some people might call Citizen Kane the great American movie. I might just opt for Gun Crazy instead." - Gary Johnson, Film Noir Reader 4 (Limelight Editions, 2004, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini)
"While 1940s cinema was packed with devious dames, few can match Peggy Cummins's hellcat sharpshooter Laurie Starr for sheer manipulative allure. ... Gun Crazy is a magnificently enjoyable film, distinguished by Joseph H. Lewis's restless, catch-all directorial style; visually, the film ranges from classic gritty noir to hyperstylised modern gothic, to a startling single-take hold-up sequence shot on crowded streets. The filmmakers never miss a chance for a sly Freudian aside: from Bart's little problem with guns (he can point, but he can't shoot) to Laurie's zealous lust for control, Gun Crazy is awash with hysterical symbolism. A genuine treat." - Tom Huddleston, Time Out London, March 2009
by Rob Nixon