Friday, March 9, 2012

The Wild & Rollickin' Good Times of Joseph H. Lewis' Whirlwind On the Run Romance-cum-Film Noir B-Flick Masterpiece Gun Crazy

Jean Luc Godard famously said that all you need for a good movie is a girl and a gun.  For all we know, the Nouvelle Vague director was imagining Joseph H. Lewis' 1950 B-Picture, Gun Crazy, when he spoke these words.  It would make more than perfect sense if he were, especially considering he and his compatriots' love of American film noir.  I suppose though, that in the case of Gun Crazy, one could give top billing to the gun, not the girl.  Yes, the girl, played by blonde hot-to-trot, flash-in-the-pan Irish actress Peggy Cummins, is your quintessential femme fatale, and it was her genre-specific wiles that caused bad boy to be Bart (lead John Dall) to take up a life of robbing banks and running from the law, but really it is the gun, or in this case the many guns, that make both of these characters go all wobbly in the lower middle.  Sam Adams of the Philadelphia City Paper wrote of the film, "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, but when Cummins' six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it's clear what really fills their collective tank."  I think that pretty much says it all - but let's go on anyway.

After a prologue featuring Russ Tamblyn as a teenaged Bart, made to explain the character's unnatural and inevitably tragic attraction to guns, Bart, now played by Dall, meets up with Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr at a sideshow carnival.  Cummins, dressed in the most wet dream inducing of cowgirl outfits, replete with skin tight pants and dangling gun belt, goes mano y mano with Dall's smitten young man on the stage of her shilled marksmanship show.  As these two take William Tell shots at each other, their fingers fondling their revolvers, their lusting eyes glistening with obvious desire, we become acutely aware that these two people want to shoot more than just guns at each other.  With innuendo somehow getting past the censors of the day (though I am sure they could have gone even further if the code had not still been in effect), this run amok romp of guns and guns and more "guns," was pure sex.  Of course, when the director, in an interview in Cult Films by Danny Peary, explains his directions as thus:  "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions." how could this not be a film that was pure (censors willing) sex?

Since its initial release, the film, which not so incidentally was scripted by the then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo whose name was eventually and rightfully re-added to the credits many years later, has become a cult favourite.  Its most important influence would be upon Arthur Penn, who took what Lewis did in Gun Crazy, and ripped it to glorious pieces in his code-shattering 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde.  Appropriately so, since the latter film is the story of a pair of real life bank robbers (and sexually charged gun enthusiasts) upon whom Gun Crazy was loosely based on in the first place.   Lewis' original 1950 film lent a lot to Penn's iconic sixties film.  Its use of on location shooting and improvised dialogue, much of the film seemingly (and brilliantly) made up on the spot (in order to give it more of a frenzied realism, the bank robbing scene was shot without the knowledge of any of the passersby on the scene), were huge influences on Penn, and for that matter many other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, who has made allusions to the film on more than one filmic occasion, and of course the aforementioned French New Wavers, especially Godard who used it as a template for much of his debut Breathless

Dall and Cummins would never have the kind of film career one could call breakthrough or even overly successful.  Dall, known primarily for his stage work, had back to back successes with this film and Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, where he played Farley Granger's more cool minded partner in crime.  Still though, this was more than what the curvy Cummins is known for.  Gun Crazy was Cummins only truly significant film work, and she has lived in the United Kingdom in contented retirement since 1961.  But the impact these two made in a film like Gun Crazy will live on forever.  After all, gun crazed as a boy or not, what red-blooded American lad could successfully fend off the advances, or even want to, of someone like Peggy Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr, no matter how tragic one knows the end circumstances to inevitably be?  After all, the film has an alternate title of Deadly is the Female, so none of Cummins' alluringly deadly come-hitherness should come as any surprise.  I suppose, in the end, Godard was right about needing just a girl and a gun to make a movie - and Joseph H. Lewis makes one hell of a B-flick, pop art motion picture out of these two things.  Oh, and a whole lot of sexual tension to boot.


5 comments:

Dave Enkosky said...

Still by far my favorite lovers on the run movie.

Kevyn Knox said...

Oh definitely.

I remember back when I first started getting into classic and foreign film (around seventeen or so) and finding all these great classic gems, one after the other. Chaplin, Bergman, Griffith, Welles, Kurosawa etc. Now, thousands of movies later, one would think all those first time viewings of great classics would be gone - but no. Along comes Gun Crazy, and I feel young again, finding a great classic yet unseen by these usually jaded eyes. Great fun indeed. And ya gotta love that cowgirl outfit.

Chip Lary said...

Good review. I completely agree that the shooting contest scene was all about sex. It is probably one of the strangest seduction/foreplay scenes to appear until Crash surpassed it (the original one with people turned on by car crashes, not the later film of the same name that won the Oscar.)

Kevyn Knox said...

I love that shooting scene in particular. Considering the direction Lewis gave to his actors.....

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