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Remind Me

Gun Crazy aka Deadly is the Female

Sunday March, 8 2015 at 08:30 AM

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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 clich├ęs, 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).
BW-86m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
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

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