GUN CRAZY: Just Gotta Have One

By Melvin Cartagena Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy – 1949 – dir. Joseph H. Lewis

The street could be Main Street from anywhere U.S.A., but in this case it’s Hampton, California. We see only a slice of the street, at an angle, from a connecting street. The effect is expressionistic lighting broken by a heavy rainfall. Then, a shadow slides across the storefronts for a moment before young Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn) peeks around a building’s edge, right at us. He advances, and the camera pulls back to show us the window front of a hardware store. Bart presses his face against the glass and looks at the display of six-shooters with a fascination that borders on worship.  He picks up a rock, hurls it at the window, then turns to look back, momentarily striking a Jesus Christ pose with his arms stretched out at his sides. He reaches in and pulls out one Colt revolver and a box of bullets, runs away, and trips, causing the gun to slide across the rain-slick street, right at the feet of Sheriff Boston. The lawman advances on Bart and, his POV is a tracking shot that crowds young Bart’s wet face on the frame before we fade to black.

Before five minutes of running time have passed in Gun Crazy, the inner force driving the main character has been explicated without a word of dialog. Bart loves guns, has an unhealthy fixation on them, simply has to have one in his hand at all times. Like a drug addiction, he needs this fix bad enough that he tries to steal one. Maybe the Jesus Christ pose Bart mimics before reaching for the six-shooter is his subconscious acknowledgement of the cross he has to bear for harboring such a need in a straight-laced society.

“No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons.”
Paul Schrader, from his essay, Notes on Film Noir, “The Film Noir Reader”

We fade into a courtroom where Bart is being tried for grand larceny, but Paul Schrader’s tenet of film noir is not what keeps Bart from speaking with authority. (Paul’s quote refers to a form of cinematic lighting where characters are lighted directly to create hard-edged shadows, and light enters a room at angles and in odd shapes—like through window blinds—to give subjects an unstable look.). The court room we see is brightly lit, airy, even warm and inviting, but Bart cannot speak authoritatively simply because he’s not allowed to. Bart sits near a window in the middle background, isolated from the court proceedings while his character is defined by his sister, the school teacher, and his friends Dave and Clyde. More accurately, three flashbacks define Bart’s character. In the first one we see that even as a young boy, Bart loves guns, and is quite a marksman. After shooting and killing a chick that strayed away from its mother with a BB rifle, Bart is traumatized, and never again points a gun at a living thing. The second flashback confirms this, when Bart is seen in the mountains with Clyde and Dave, and refuses to shoot an old cougar (his friend Clyde tries, and each failed shot is punctuated by Bart clenching his fist with horror at what he sees and hears.). In the third flashback, courtesy of the school teacher, we see Bart showing his gun to his schoolmates (imagine that today), and then refusing to hand it over when the teacher asks for it, asserting, “It’s my gun. I paid for it with my own money.”

Bart is obsessed with guns, but can’t bring himself to shoot a living thing, which leaves him with limited career choices. He’s also awkward in his own skin. He is gangly and clumsy. Without a gun in his hand he is incomplete (as he tells the judge when he’s finally allowed to speak: “It’s just that when I shoot, I feel like I’m good at something.”). How Bart Tare comes to terms with these issues is the motor of Gun Crazy, Joseph H. Lewis’s lean, muscular crime/thriller masterpiece. A film that’s been shortlisted by the National Film Registry as culturally and historically significant, and number six of the ten films considered to best embody the characteristics of film noir. The movie is also fast and fun, featuring guns, crimes, a femme fatale, and the steamiest sex you’ll ever see without being shown naked bodies, or the actual sex. This happens right after the adult Bart (John Dall) comes back to town after being away for years, first to the reform school where the judge sent him to, then the military, where he excelled as a shooting range instructor. Bored with the routine of military life and directionless at the moment while celebrating with his friends Clyde and Dave at the passing circus, they go into a tent show, where Bart finds his focus in the compact and alluring package of Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). She is the show’s sharpshooter who gets bested by Bart in a competition that feels more like foreplay than gunplay. They can barely take their eyes off each other to shoot their guns. Their attraction for each other is animalistic; Packett (Berry Kroeger) sees it, and it scares him.

In explaining his direction for the scene of their first meeting, Joseph H. Lewis was quoted in the book Cult Films as saying: “I told John, ‘Your cock’s never been so hard,’ and I told Peggy, ‘You’re like a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry.’ That’s exactly how I talked to them, and I turned them loose.”. And they do run loose. After being fired by Packett, the show manager—who thought he had a claim on Laurie when it was the other way around—they get married. Lewis gets us through the prolonged honeymoon quickly, but smoothly. Through a series of dissolves that illustrate their bliss and leisure, we see them traveling, sightseeing, cutting loose in ritzy clubs, enjoying themselves on Bart’s money, until it’s gone, and then we’re back at the meat of the movie. Laurie tells Bart that she’ll leave him if he doesn’t go along with what she wants. “I want action,” she tells him flat out. And just like that, they’re robbing convenience store clerks, hitting them up for petty cash and running, going from hold up to getaway in the space of a cinematic cut. They are fast and stupid, but Bart is under Laurie’s spell, and Laurie is addicted to the rush. The grin on her face after each robbery is the smile that follows an orgasm.

The movie’s original release title was Deadly Is The Female. Somewhat appropriate, but a little unfair. “I told you I was no good, and I didn’t kid you,” Laurie tells Bart. She is bad, but she is honest. She warned Bart before they got married, and before that we clearly see she was manipulating Packett, until Bart caught her eye, filling her head with the possibility of better things ahead. Regardless, by the movie’s end, she does care about Bart. Gun Crazy is a more appropriate and descriptive title. They are both crazy about guns in their individual ways. For Laurie they aren’t so much a replacement for sex as an extension of sex, which is what she uses to control men and get what she wants. When Laurie feels cornered, her response is a fight-or-flight instinct that compels her to shoot first without a thought. She is a loose cannon that Bart has to control at every holdup. For Bart, a gun is his identity. Through the movie’s story arc, we see Bart’s disgust with each robbery, the realization that his craft and his self-image are melding into a new entity, that of a criminal. The movie is Bart’s search for his true self. After Bart and Laurie wise up and start wearing disguises, we see them dressed up as cowboy and cowgirl—their old tent show outfits—for the movie’s legendary single-take bank robbery sequence, a long, exhilarating scene in which we are made accomplices in the crime, like spectators gawking from the backseat. For their next hit, they’re wearing shades and trench coats (an involuntary reference to film noir?), and for what was supposed to be the big score, the hit on which they would retire, they dress as a meat truck driver and an office clerk. Getaways also feature wardrobe changes. To cross the California state line, they affect an air of intellectuals, decking themselves in tweeds and wire-rim glasses. In another scene, Bart is wearing a stolen military officer’s uniform, which bothers him, and he tells Laurie how everything is moving too fast, like it’s all unreal, “I’m yours, and I’m real,” Laurie tells him. She is the only real thing in Bart’s world, but not the best emotional anchor for him to cling to. We see this shortly, during the meat packing plant job, where Laurie’s trigger finger finally lets loose, and in the aftermath two people are left behind, dead (“Two people dead! Just so we can live without working!” Bart tells her. “Why do you have to murder people? Why can’t you let them live?”). However, Laurie gets Bart’s feathers unruffled easily, and soon they’re living near the ocean, enjoying a few days of peace before the serial numbers of the bills they’ve been passing around draw the attention of the FBI. They double back to Hampton, where Bart’s sister is cold, and Dave and Clyde want him to surrender. Bart and Laurie run to the mountains, a place Bart knows well, and feels confident he can loose the posse in. They collapse at nightfall, exhausted after running all day. They wake up in a fog-shrouded marsh, with the splish-splash of pursuers stalking them, hovering just out of sight. Laurie clings to him. Bart hugs her, tells her, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” In their moment of greatest tension, Bart accepts who he is.

Clyde and Dave talk to Bart through the fog. They’re coming for him, they tell him. They know he won’t shoot. Laurie’s fight-or-flight impulse kicks in. She shouts at them to stay away, raising her gun at the approaching figures. For the second time in his life Bart aims and kills a living thing, his sweet Laurie. The posse thinks they’re under fire, and they shoot back. Bringing an end to the Bart and Laurie saga.

Gun Crazy is fast and dangerous, like a poised cobra about to strike; it’s hypnotizing. Gun Crazy is the original Bonnie And Clyde without the bags of blood, the big budget and with bigger stars. It’s Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg from Breathless with a sense of commitment, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer (the couple on the run that bookend Pulp Fiction) without the self-awareness and motormouth dialog, and the superior version against the 1993 Tamra Davis remake (starring Drew Barrymore and James LeGros) with its heavy handed motivation and slacker vibe that was so in at the time.

Gun Crazy is as fresh and invigorating today as when first released over 50 years ago. To see it is to rediscover the sheer energy movies can generate in the hands of a capable director. And writer(s). Of course.
THE END