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.
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.
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).