Thursday, 28 April 2011

"Gun Crazy" Review

Thirty years before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would star in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), ther real life Bonnie and Clyde would inspire the film You Only Live Once (1937), directed by Fritz Lang. Another film also inspired by the legendary bank robbers was Gun Crazy (1950). Gun Crazy may in time become one of my favourite film noirs, it's a film that aches out to be seen again once its over. The performances, the camera work, the unexpected poignancy, they all work together to create an unpretentious and efficient little thriller about the power a beautiful and dangerous woman can have over a man. Even though I knew the narrative trajectory of the film before I watched it, I nevertheless was engaged throughout.

The film begins with Bart Tate (Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame) stealing a gun from a pawn shop. He is caught by the town sheriff and is sentenced to reform school. He spends several years there and in the army. After he gets out of the army, he comes back to town, now played by John Dall. The only other film I've seen Dall in is Alfred Hitchock's film Rope (1948), as one half of a murder plot along with Farley Granger. While Dall's name isn't as legendary as some of his contemporaries, seeing him play such an unsympathetic and cold blooded character in Rope, then seeing him play the Farley Granger role from Rope, dragged in to a life of crime that doesn't suit his straightlaced personality, I think he's a very fine actor. Bart and his friends Clyde and Dave go to the carnival to watch a shooting performance by Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). After participating in a shooting contest with her, Bart joins the carnival. His time there doesn't last long as the carnival manager Packett  becomes jealous of Bart for stealing away Laurie's affections. When Packett fires them both, Bart and Laurie run off together They get married and for a while they are happy. Ultimately they realize Bart's job is paying them enough money so Laurie convinces Bart to rob banks and other places with her.

Bart being pulled in to life of crime provides the film's most fascinating dilemma. Bart has always loved guns but after killing a little chicken when he was young, he can't bring himself to kill anything. Bart says later in the film that if one is going to rob a place, he or she has to be prepared to kill, has to know it may come to that This is what appealed to me most about the film, that  Bart is never portrayed as being an outright evil person At the beginning of the film, when Bart is sentenced, he is not portrayed as an evil kid who will always be that way but rather as boy who is a little strange. This makes his decent in to crime much more dramatic and tragic. As in many film noirs, you always say to yourself, "If only he hadn't..." It also makes the love story more complex and poignant. I believe that Bart and Laurie are genuinely in love, that they go together like guns and ammunitions as Bart says, but Laurie is still leading Bart to his doom, as well as her own. The film asks how far would you go to be with the one you love. Could you accept that person even if he or she was a killer?

Bart has to accept Laurie as she is. Like Bart, Laurie is never portrayed as being totally evil. While she does have psychopathic tendencies, there is still a vulnerability, brought to the character by Cummins, that suggests that Cummins is just as afraid and reluctant to kill anyone as Bart. Even when Laurie tries to convince Bart to use Bart's neice as a human  shield near the end of the film when she and Bart hide at his sister Ruby's house, it comes across a patheitic rather than evil. It's also darkly funny. Cummins is very good here, being both deadly and vulnerable, always making the audience question her true character. Also, just finding out she is English, she does a convincing American accent.

The director Joseph H. Lewis brings a real sense of excitement to the proceedings, putting the camera in the getaway car so that the audience feels like they are driving away with Bart and Laurie. There was an element of guerilla fillmaking involved in the making of the picture. A sequence in a parking lot where Bart and Laurie escape after a robbery, was done without permission. Phillip Martin says this type of filmmaking anticipates the work of Jean Luc Godard with films like Breathless (1960). Of course, Godard was influenced by American filmmakers and Gun Crazy was one of the inspirations for Breathless. Martin also seems to think that the film can only be taken as camp, and not as a serious piece of work. I disagree. I found the film poignant and was quite masterful in terms of its pacing and mood.

I love how the film comes full circle, returning to Bart's sister and his friends, who still love Bart despite what's he done. I think the real accomplishment of the film, and Dall's performance, is that we kind of come to love him too, and we love him with Laurie. They are a perfect embodiment of the tragic noir couple and Gun Crazy embodies what is great about film noir, all its tragedy, sexual tension, and the excitement of a loaded gun.

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