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Tag Archives: MacKinlay Kantor

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).

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The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.