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Gun Crazy (Jan. 20, 1950)

Gun Crazy
Gun Crazy (1950)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
King Brothers Productions / United Artists

Before there was Bonnie and Clyde there was Gun Crazy.

Not literally, of course, since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed banks during the Great Depression. I’m speaking of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, which is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the depiction of violence in American films. The bloody gunfight that ends Bonnie and Clyde presaged the brutal excesses of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), ushered in a new era in onscreen bloodshed, and helped lead to the ratings system we all know and love today.

None of the shootings in Gun Crazy involve fake blood, but it’s still a significant film in the history of onscreen violence. For one thing, Gun Crazy is not shy about linking sex and violence. Its two protagonists are social misfits who only really come alive when they’re handling firearms or shooting at something.

Barton Tare (John Dall) is obsessed with firearms from a young age, but even though he’s a crack shot, he can’t bring himself to kill anything. He’s in trouble with the law from an early age after smashing a store window to steal a revolver, and is looking at a lifetime of one dead-end job after another until he goes to the circus with his friends and meets British trick-shot artist Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). He does what no other rube has ever done — out-shoots her in a trick-shot contest — and they fall in love. Their love quickly turns into a trigger-happy folie à deux, and they tear across the country robbing banks.

Peggy Cummins

Gun Crazy was based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. Even though the movie takes place in the post-war era when it was filmed, it has a distinctly Depression-era flavor. It presents a world in which Americans can choose between a life of crime, easy money, and an early death, or they can choose to be honest citizens and slave away in drudgery for chump change.

Gun Crazy was filmed in the spring of 1949 and originally released in theaters early in 1950 under the title Deadly Is the Female. Presumably the producers felt that “Gun Crazy” sounded too trashy and tawdry, and wanted a classier sounding title. After the film underperformed at the box office, they re-released it with its original title, Gun Crazy, in August 1950, but distributors rarely jump at the chance of putting out a film that already flopped under one title, and the late-summer release of Gun Crazy went nowhere.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when French critics were rediscovering and recontextualizing Hollywood “film noir” that Gun Crazy started to earn the reputation it enjoys today as one of the all-time great noirs.

Dall and Cummins

Director Joseph H. Lewis was never a household name, but I’ve always been impressed by his ability to inject style into pedestrian material. His last movie, The Undercover Man (1949), was a great example of this.

Gun Crazy isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endlessly fascinating film to watch. Like most of Lewis’s movies, the pacing is quick, but the reason I keep coming back to it is the weird mix of slightly unreal soundstage sets with hyper-real location shooting.

One of the most talked-about sequences in the film is the robbery in which the camera never leaves the backseat of Bart and Annie’s car.

Originally, the bank robbery was an elaborate sequence, but Lewis wanted to do something simpler and save time and money, so he shot a test in 16mm, then worked with his crew on the details. They removed the backseat from a stretch Cadillac to accommodate a camera that could move forward and back, and pan to the right when Cummins leaves the car to talk to the police officer. All of the dialogue between Dall and Cummins in the car was improvised. The only scripted dialogue is when Cummins gets out of the car to distract the cop.

I find it an incredibly effective scene, but it’s the kind of filmmaking that still divides audiences. For instance, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), the camera never leaves the getaway car during a pawnshop robbery sequence, which some people found tense and realistic. Others, who wanted more “Fast and the Furious” type of action, felt differently.

If you have any affinity for crime stories or film noirs, you owe it to yourself to see Gun Crazy. Also, for further reading, please check out this great piece on Gun Crazy by Karen at Shadows and Satin: Famous Couples of Noir: Annie and Bart in Gun Crazy (1950).

Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

The Iron Curtain (May 12, 1948)

The Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain (1948)
Directed by William A. Wellman
20th Century-Fox

William A. Wellman’s The Iron Curtain was the first appearance of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney together in a film since Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This really has no bearing on The Iron Curtain, but I love the movie Laura and Andrews and Tierney are one of my favorite screen couples, so it was fun to see them play completely different roles.

The Iron Curtain is the fictionalized tale of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk who was stationed at the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa and discovered that American military secrets and other products of Soviet espionage were being transmitted through his office.

There is the obligatory text preceding the film that tells the viewer that all the documents presented appear exactly as they did in actual court records, as authenticated by the R.C.M.P.

This is a standard opening for a docudrama, which in the late ’40s was sort of a subgenre of film noir, with dramatic lighting, expressionistic camera angles, and subjective storytelling applied to true stories of espionage or miscarried justice, like The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). These films used actual locations, documents, and occasionally even the actual participants in historical events to add sizzle to their “ripped from the headlines” plots.

When Gouzenko first arrives in Canada he’s the perfect apparatchik, devoted to Marxism and to the Communist Party. When one of his fellow Soviet embassy workers, Nina Karanova (June Havoc), shows him her spacious, well-decorated apartment, he berates her for her laxity and for being seduced by the trappings of Western decadence. But a chain of events conspires to force Gouzenko to experience some character development. His wife, Anna Gouzenko (Gene Tierney), joins him in Ottawa, and together they experience the friendliness and good hearts of their North American neighbors, and realize that they might have more in common with their “enemies” than they thought. At work, Gouzenko is haunted by the drunken recollections of Maj. Semyon Kulin (Eduard Franz), who murdered some of his own men to force others to “volunteer” for a mission during the war.

When Gouzenko discovers that he is passing classified information from the embassy back to Moscow — American nuclear secrets, the details of a supposedly secret meeting in Canada between FDR and Churchill, details of sleeper agents — he experiences a crisis of conscience, and has to decide if he should turn documents over to the Canadian Minister of Justice and put his life and the lives of his wife and child in danger.

The Iron Curtain is a slick, well-made thriller that doesn’t generate suspense through over-the-top elements like chases or shootouts, but rather through grounded, real-life elements like the threat of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police.

When the story of Igor Gouzenko was originally covered by the media in February 1946, it was the beginning of public awareness of the Cold War. The revelation that our former allies were running a spy ring in North America had a profound impact that would last for decades. The Iron Curtain is the earliest film I’ve seen to tackle the looming Soviet menace, and it’s more tasteful and factually accurate than some of the outré Red Scare flicks the ’50s would give us.

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