By Paul-John Ramos
A man and woman undergoing hard economic times fall hopelessly in love on their first meeting. Sharing a passion for gunplay, they kick off a series of robberies with increasingly high stakes. This puts law enforcement on the couple’s tail and they are soon running for their lives while also trying to pocket cash and having some fun in doing it.
When reading this description, many vintage movie fans will attribute it to Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 classic by Arthur Penn that broke barriers for depictions of violence and sex. Yet almost twenty years prior, a ‘B’ crime thriller named Gun Crazy reached screens with the very same premise. Itself influenced by the real-life saga of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Gun Crazy was an obvious inspiration for Penn when making his later film, as he should have acknowledged.
Gun Crazy, released by United Artists in 1950, derives from a short story by MacKinlay Kantor that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post a decade earlier. Producers Frank, Maurice, and Herman King – the ever-present King Brothers – had been interested in making a film adaptation for several years but appeared to wait until after World War II ended and censorship began to relax. Joseph H. Lewis, a reliable director of ‘B’ thrillers and Westerns whose career lasted from the late 1930s until a foray into television during the mid-’60s, took on the project with a meagre budget of $400,000 and a screenplay co-authored by Kantor and blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who was fronted by Millard Kaufman (Bad Day at Black Rock) in the credits.
The film was a total failure, both critically and financially, upon its release. United Artists, worried that a title like Gun Crazy might be too racy for audiences, decided to package it as the more generic Deadly is the Female. Critics paid the film little to no attention and few people actually saw it. When the poor receipts began filing in, UA restored Gun Crazy as its name and attempted to redistribute it, but theaters wanted nothing to do with a film that already made the rounds and didn’t draw business. The film reportedly grossed around $17,000.
Gun Crazy went into immediate obscurity but found new life in the 1960s and ’70s when directors like Penn, Paul Schrader, and French New Wave icons Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut acknowledged – directly and indirectly – its influence on their work. At that time, only the most erudite tended to know of Gun Crazy’s existence. It has since become an essential of crime film fans and usually serves as a film history reference point. Gun Crazy was inducted to the U.S. National Film Registry in 1998, having been recognized for its importance to the genre.
Watching Gun Crazy today, like many other crime films of its era, can be a strange mix of the vile, riveting, uplifting, cute, corny, and compelling. There tends to be a perceived innocence of the time one is looking into, only for it to be shattered by crimes the given film is depicting. Joseph H. Lewis, with help from Kantor and Trumbo’s script, was able to make Gun Crazy an unsettling experience by zigzagging its plotline between a love story – embellished by the lush soundtrack of Victor Young – and the breakneck action that drives everything forward. And while this alternation happens, there is an overarching sense of doom for the couple involved.
Running 1 hour and 27 minutes, Gun Crazy opens in a series of flashbacks that offer details on the focal male character, Bart Tare, a young man from suburban California. At the very beginning, we see an early teen Bart (played by West Side Story alumnus Russ Tamblyn) steal a pistol from the front window of a hardware store and immediately get caught by a police officer. Bart attends a hearing in juvenile court, where he is represented by his older sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw). Both parents are apparently gone from his life, though it is never explained why.
We see flashbacks during testimony from Ruby, Bart’s schoolteacher, and his friends Dave (David Bair) and Clyde (Paul Frison) that paint a very mixed picture. Bart had been around guns for most of his life, starting from when he obtained a BB gun while very young. The gun use seems to have developed into an obsession and his one true notion of self-worth. The schoolteacher explains that she caught him showing off a pistol to others in her classroom, after which he refused to hand it over until the police came. Bart admits that the transgressions are from his deep-rooted need to have a gun at all times. While Bart, however, feels this insatiable urge, he is disgusted at the idea of harming any living thing, man or beast, with a weapon. We see this when he cries after killing a baby chick with his BB gun and refusing, when a few years older, to shoot at a mountain lion despite egging on from Dave and Clyde.
The last we see of Bart as a teenager is when he’s ordered to reform school by the court. Time moves ahead several years to when he returns home from army service; Bart, Dave, and Clyde reunite as fully grown men. The adult Bart is played by John Dall, who is known primarily for his roles in The Corn Is Green (which brought him an Oscar nomination), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, besides this film. Bart instructed soldiers on marksmanship while in the army, but, quite true to his personality, he didn’t take part in battle. He is now unemployed and looking for work with his only expertise – guns – despite the fact that he doesn’t want anyone or anything in harm’s way.
Fate intervenes when the three buddies attend a traveling carnival. There is a sideshow that features Annie Laurie Starr, an English-born sharpshooter whose pistols are said to have no equal in hitting the target. Laurie, as Bart later calls her, is played by Irish actress Peggy Cummins, who appeared in films on both sides of the Atlantic that included for producer Alexander Korda. Bart is immediately smitten with Laurie and things get interesting when the show host Packett (Berry Kroeger) invites anyone from the audience to challenge her marksmanship for a cash prize. Bart takes up the offer and wins, outdoing Laurie by one shot. Having found their true soulmates, a magnetism is felt between them. Bart also gets hired by Packett to a sideshow role, temporarily ending his work problem.
Laurie, as it turns out, is in a relationship with Packett and bored by his constant scraping for income with the carnival. Packett, sensing Bart as a threat, looks to warn him off but there is an argument between the three of them and Bart and Laurie are fired. They leave the carnival behind, get married, and go on an expensive honeymoon with little regard for the money they’re plowing through. It’s when they are pawning their jewelry and back to eating in cheap burger joints that Laurie fully reveals herself as a vicious thrill-seeker. Using her sexual draw, she persuades Bart to rob small businesses with her before moving onto larger cash sources like banks and company payrolls. Seeing her as the one person with whom he shares an obsession, Bart goes along for the ride and is continuously reassured by Laurie of his manliness.
Besides serving as a nexus of the Bonnie and Clyde mythology – both influenced by it and an influencer of later depictions – Gun Crazy stands out for its intermingling of sexual desire with violence and its frantic action scenes. In 1949, when this film was made, lovers running from the law were not ground-breaking; Fritz Lang, for instance, used the convention in You Only Live Once several years before. What differs in Gun Crazy, however, is that the main characters are shown for all of their frenzied passion and malicious urges, for which the film never really apologizes. The film is not truly judgmental, perhaps even a bit sympathetic, in conveying their animal attraction to one another and love of firearms, both of which fuel the series of crimes. Sex and violence, taboos of the early 20th century Hollywood system, find themselves completely entwined. The oversized guns wielded in this film, including Laurie’s six-shooters, are clearly being used as phallic symbols to represent the sexual undercurrent.
Bart and Laurie’s frenzied love is driven by the primal, finding its true outlet when they’re exchanging shots with law enforcement and speeding off with bags of cash. Sometimes, a person is wounded or killed and Laurie is the one at fault. Bart wants to make their scores as harmless as possible but Laurie, who already killed a man in St. Louis before they met, is a sociopath and has no qualms about opening fire on the people trying to stop them. Their troublemaking can only lead in one direction, as observed by Bart’s friends David (screenwriter-actor Nedrick Young of The Defiant Ones), now a town newspaper reporter, and Clyde (Harry Lewis), a police deputy, both of whom know that the madness must end.
Aside from the masterplot of wild robbers in love, Gun Crazy’s action scenes are perhaps its other significant contribution to the genre. Even today, sequences like the famous bank robbery that is captured in one uninterrupted shot from the backseat of Bart and Laurie’s car and their payroll hit on the Armour meatpacking plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, bring an adrenaline rush. These scenes were superbly directed by Lewis, filmed by cinematographer Russell Harlan (Blackboard Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird), and edited by Harry Gerstad (who won Oscars for Champion and High Noon). The final, crushing scene in a marshland, filmed atop a Hollywood sound stage, is eerily atmospheric and carries genuine suspense.
Having mentioned Gun Crazy’s historical worth, the film also has blemishes that were common for its time. There are plenty of plot gaps and failures of logic to go around – for instance, the relative ease with which Bart and Laurie are able to get through police checkpoints right after their crimes (their ‘disguises’ are incredibly lame) and how it was possible for them to get jobs in the Armour plant when their descriptions have probably reached every facet of American industry. And, very importantly, we are always wondering how Bart could be so fixated on guns while disturbed by the idea of harming someone with them. We can look at this as a symbolism for male inadequacy, but the conflicted feelings themselves are a bit hard to digest.
The film’s main problem, however, lies with its casting of John Dall as Bart, which was not a terrible choice but doesn’t look like the best of fits, either. Dall played in other tough roles, including as a killer in Rope, but his smooth looks and articulate speech combined with the moments of doubt as a crook make Bart seem a little too refined for this business. When launching into soliloquies on his discomfort over being a criminal (probably included to appease the censors), you’d think Bart should be sitting at an office desk somewhere, managing the company ledgers instead of driving around with a cold-blooded killer. It might have been better to cast someone rough around the edges – Sterling Hayden comes to mind – but you can also understand a person of Dall’s makeup being chosen to ensure that the audience would not be wholly unsympathetic to him. Interestingly, the more socially upright male characters, such as Dave, Clyde, and any of the other police officers, come across as squares in comparison, which might say something about how these types are looked upon by audiences today.
Amongst Gun Crazy’s main cast, Peggy Cummins gives by far the best performance, largely because her character is evil at heart and uninhibited. I could see many actresses enjoying this part at the time that Gun Crazy was made, when women were expected to behave as pillars of the community. Charming, pleasant to the eyes, and quite stylish with her dress at times, Laurie can manipulate the audience into feeling for her just as Bart is hopelessly in her clutches. No mistake should be made, however, when needing to judge her as coldhearted and reckless. Her idea of taking Bart’s infant nephew hostage to escape from the police – which Bart refuses – confirms all that we need to know.
The second-best performance is given by Anabel Shaw as Ruby, Bart’s law-abiding sister who served as his guardian and became a housewife with three children. Shaw, who appeared in several thrillers during the 1940s, is only seen at the film’s beginning and towards its end but works very well with Cummins when Bart and Laurie take refuge in Ruby’s house. There is an effective sequence where the two women are alone and we feel palpable tension between an obeyer of the law and an evader of the cops. The scene also shows a pigeonholing of women in early 20th century America – good girl versus rebel – and the limited choices of career and lifestyle that average women faced. The other supporting cast, including Russ Tamblyn as the young Bart, Nedrick Young, and Harry Lewis, do efficient work for roles of this period.
While known for its innovations and how it influenced filmmakers, Gun Crazy is still a highly average film when comparing it to other crime thrillers of the era. The film’s treatment of its gun-slinging couple and execution of action scenes make it historically notable, but it also carries a fair share of plot holes, cringy dialogue, and run-of-the-mill supporting characters that define those years. Despite this, crime lovers will straightforwardly – and correctly – recommend the film for what it does get right and since it does not at all fail to entertain. It definitely fits into that category of a ‘B’ classic.
Dall and Cummins, the two halves of Gun Crazy’s iconic couple, moved ahead with their productive and fairly successful careers despite the film’s initial bust. Dall, who was primarily a stage actor, continued to work in repertory and made occasional appearances on television; he held roles in three later films, including Spartacus as commander Marcus Publius Glabrus. In October 1970, he was seriously injured in a fall while visiting London, from which he never fully recovered. He died at his Beverly Hills home in January 1971, at age 50. Cummins died in 2017, having been married to her already-late husband, Derek Dunnett, for 50 years. Originally a London-based actress, she returned to England around the time of Gun Crazy’s release and appeared in several films and TV programs there before mostly retiring in the mid-1960s to focus on charity work. Best known for her role as Laurie, she gave interviews on the film after it was rediscovered.
Once doomed to the attic of forgotten films, Gun Crazy has enjoyed a new life after directors like Penn, Schrader, Godard, and Truffaut found inspiration from its raw material. Today, the history of post-Second World War crime films is not complete without Gun Crazy being discussed. While films like Bonnie and Clyde would probably have been made regardless of whether Gun Crazy existed or not, they may very well have looked different if the earlier film hadn’t entered the world. As a late 1940s-early ’50s potboiler, Gun Crazy has the typical ‘B’ movie warts but its accomplishments raise it above the plane of averageness.