Filmsite Movie Review
Gun Crazy (1949)
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Background

Gun Crazy (1949 or 1950) (aka Deadly Is the Female), the forerunner of director Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), is considered by many to be the ultimate B-movie - with film noirish elements. Director Joseph H. Lewis's cult picture was taken from a Saturday Evening Post story by novelist MacKinlay Kantor, and developed from a screenplay by Kantor and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (credited as Millard Kaufman to hide the fact that he was one of the Hollywood Ten). Gun Crazy lacked even a single Academy Award nomination.

The fast-paced story is propelled along with numerous stick-ups, a dominant femme fatale, an erotic love and obsession with guns, and the deadly sexual attraction between two memorable trigger-happy sharp-shooters who substitute gunplay for sex - all underlined by the repeated use of Victor Young and Ned Washington's song "Mad About You."

The low-budget, stylistic film cast two unknown leads as criminals on a cross-country run from the law - 23 year-old Peggy Cummins as carnival trick-sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr, and 30 year-old John Dall as gun-fixated Bart Tare, who meet up and soon go on a robbery/shooting spree that ends in their deaths. Taglines advertised: "Notorious Laurie Starr...wanted in a dozen states...hunted by the F.B.I.! She was more than any man could handle!" The film is beautifully staged, with stunningly-realistic, on-the-spot, one-take (single-shot) scenes of robberies, filmed entirely from the backseat of the holdup-getaway car.

A collection of other films about the flight of a fugitive pair of mad lovers (amour fou) - a la Bonnie and Clyde, have been made since the mid-30s - Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, Persons in Hiding (1938) with Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish, Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949) with Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972) starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974) - a remake of Ray's film with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Jim McBride's Breathless (1983) with Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky, Tamra Davis' Guncrazy (1992) starring Drew Barrymore and James LeGros, and Natural Born Killers (1994) with Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson.

The Story

The film's opening is pivotal and expressionistic, quickly determining the young hero's ultimate defeat and failure. On a dark, rainy night on a shadowy street where a neon HOTEL sign blinks on and off and a Dobson's Feed and Grain sign is prominent, an alienated, young fourteen-year-old Bart Tare (Rusty Tamblyn), with rain dripping off his face, walks toward the screen and a hardware-store window, where he obsessively and privately covets an ivory-handled gun resting temptingly there in a display. Fascinated by the Western sharpshooter, he steps back, looks around, and hurls a object through the glass to break it. Bart steps forward and whirls around in fear to turn his back toward the broken store window and cover up the gaping hole in the window - he outstretches his arms [in a crucifixion pose?], and then reaches in to furtively steal the gun. He retreats with the purloined pistol, but tumbles on the wet street into a deep puddle. The gun slides and careens along the soaked pavement, coming to a halt in front of a pair of shoes of a mustached, Stetson-hatted witness/bystander - Sheriff Boston (Trevor Bardette), a representative of the law. In a point-of-view angle, Bart looks up at the ominous figure, terrified that he has been caught.

In the next brightly lit scene, a shamed Bart sits by himself silhouetted in front of a courtroom window, hunched over in a chair with his arms held in front of him - he listens to others giving testimony before Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky) in a small-town courtroom about his obsession with guns. His elder sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) who raised him describes her maternal care toward her orphaned brother:

Ruby: I'm not only his big sister, but mother and father too. I've been trying to take care of him but I guess I never earned enough to buy the things for him that other boys have. But he was good, he was always good, never cried or nothing.
Judge: I'm sure he was good, Ruby, but this obsession he seems to have for guns.
Ruby: When he was real little, at first it was slingshots. Used to make 'em himself. Then he got an old BB gun he traded for a chipmunk he caught and tamed. And he, he was always shooting it. He was a better shot than any other kid. Well, I thought maybe a boy likes to feel he's best at something. So I saved up and one Christmas I got him a brand new BB gun. He was prouder of that than anything in his whole life.

In a short flashback, a seven year-old Bart (Mickey Little) play-acts a Western scene - he fires the BB gun in his yard while sitting astride a wooden hobby-horse. After aiming and killing one of the young chicks, he whimpers and cries at the sight of the dead creature. According to Ruby, Bart doesn't have a killer instinct and does not use guns to kill living things - he admitted his wrong-doing and "he's never killed anything since in his whole life - and he never will. It's something else about guns that gets him, not killing."

Two of Bart's closest school friends, leather-jacketed Clyde Boston (Paul Frison), the Sheriff's son, and Dave Allister (Dave Bair) also give their character testimonies about their friend, illustrating Bart's harmless gun-shooting with another defining flashback moment: "...what Miss Tare says about Bart not wanting to kill anything - why it's true, Judge. Clyde and I know it is. Because a couple of years ago during summer vacation, the three of us went on a camping trip up in the San Lorenzo Mountains, near a place we call Natural Bridge. Clyde had lost his jack-knife and we were looking for it when all of a sudden..." After spotting a mountain lion, crack-shot Bart is encouraged to aim at it. When he pauses too long and cannot bear to pull the trigger - hearing the cheeping of the chicks in his mind - he passes the gun to Clyde. As his friend shoots at the mountain lion, Bart's tense fist clenches hard with each shot. When taunted by his friends, Bart demonstrates his marksmanship by shooting holes through his water canteen flung into the air.

...it's like Miss Tare just said, he wouldn't kill anything, not even an old mountain lion that had a bounty on him.

The young boy's fast-talking, eighth grade school teacher Miss Wynn (Virginia Farmer) also testifies about a "gun-carrying incident" at school. Bart is surrounded by other students as he lovingly fondles his gun, explains how he acquired it ("earned the money and bought it off one of the men on the road crew"), the necessity of having a gun ("nobody can ever tell what might happen, never can tell when you might need a gun"), and boasts to a girl: "I'm probably the best shot in Cashville." When Miss Wynn disrupts the secretive session, he possessively holds the gun to his chest and protests giving it up: "It's mine. I bought it...It's my gun. I earned the money for it and I'm not going to give it to anybody." According to Miss Wynn, Bart was fixated on handling and possessing the gun:

It was as if the gun was simply something he had to have, just as other boys have to have jackknifes, or harmonicas, or baseball bats.

According to Sheriff Boston, Bart relinquished his weapon only when the law officer was summoned: "I've known him since he was a toddler. He handed it right over. Then I talked to him and his sister and it was agreed by all of us that he wouldn't have another gun until he was of age." Bart's lack of a father figure has victimized him, according to older sister Ruby, who is engaged to be married to Ira Flagler (Charles McGraw):

Ruby: Bart's needed a man around the house. Well, this is Ira Flagler. Ira and I are going to be married next week, and we've talked it over, and Ira wants Bart to live with us.
Judge: Adjusting yourself to marriage, Ruby, is a job all by itself without assuming extra handicaps at the start.

The nervous, timid boy is brought before the judge and point-blank asked why he stole the gun from the hardware store. Bart confirms his harmless obsession, admitting that guns give him a sense of self-worth (and manliness) and shooting makes him "feel awful good inside." Because Bart's gun-fixation has become "a dangerous mania," the judge sentences him to an out-of-town reform school that will provide guidance and discipline and help Bart "to grow up":

Judge: But why? What made you do it?
Bart: I don't know. They took my gun away from me. And I've just got to have a gun.
Judge: But why?
Bart: Because, like Sis says, shooting's what I'm good at. It's the only thing I like. It's what I want to do when I grow up.
Judge: You mean you don't want to do anything with your life except shoot guns?
Bart: I like shooting 'em, Judge. I don't know why, but I feel good when I'm shooting them. I feel awful good inside like I'm somebody.
Judge: Well, we're not trying you here today because you like to shoot, Bart. We're trying you because the thing you like so well has turned into a dangerous mania with you. You're here today because you committed grand larceny, burglary, breaking and entering. We all want things, Bart, but our possession of them has to be regulated by law. And you've broken the law. You've committed a very serious crime. Now it's my job here to think not only of what's good for you, but what's good for the community in which you live. And I'm afraid we're going to have to find a new environment for you Bart, one in which you can grow up without jeopardizing the lives and property of others. Bart, I'm going to send you to a school, one that's out of town. It's not a punishment. It's a school that will help you to grow up. You'll remain there until you're of age, or until this court finds a reason to make a change.

Years later (about four years) upon his return home, Bart phones both his married sister Ruby (who encourages him to "hurry" home and tells her two kids: "It's your Uncle Bart. He's come home") and Dave (Nedrick Young), who has become a newspaperman-reporter for the Cashville News. The tall and lanky, well-behaved Bart is reunited in the mountainous foothills with both Dave and Clyde where they earlier confronted a mountain lion. In a deep-focus shot, Bart shows off his love of guns and further marksmanship by firing on beer bottles placed on a low-lying tree limb, and then describes a fancy collector's case containing dueling pistols. Clyde (Harry Lewis), now a leather-jacketed town sheriff and married man with one son, has followed in his father's footsteps. Unlike Bart, his path was defined by his father's occupation. After reform school, Bart became a shooting instructor in the Army, but the war veteran has vague plans for his future:

Clyde: I guess he'll grow up to be sheriff too.
Dave: How about you, Bart?
Bart: Four years in reform school and then the army. Fat chance of getting married on that routine...It's dull, nothing but teaching guys how to shoot...
Dave: What are you figurin' on doing now, Bart?
Bart: (as he closes his gun case) Well, I don't know, I don't know, I think I'd kinda like to settle down. Maybe get a job with Remington, or one of those outfits demonstratin'.

That evening, the three boyhood pals attend the small-town visiting Packet's Carnival, passing by fire-eaters and belly dancers in the sideshows. They encounter "a great star act," featuring blonde, English sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) - headlined by the seedy carnival owner Packet (Barry Kroeger) as a hyped-up entertainer with a flamboyant past:

the famous, the dangerous, the beautiful Miss Annie Laurie Starr, direct from London, England and the capitals of the Continent. Furthermore, whose remarkable marksmanship the greatest pistol and rifle shots in America have gone down in defeat. So here she is ladies and gentleman, so appealing, so dangerous, so lovely to look at. The darling of London, England. Miss Annie Laurie Starr!

As the entertaining star trick markswoman [a typical femme fatale seductress in film noir] appears on stage dressed as a Western cowgirl (with cowboy hat and shirt, gun holster, and hip-hugging black pants) and fires into the air, a broad-smiling Bart in the front row leans forward intently for a closer look at his dream-girl/soul-mate come true, captivated and fixated on her domineering, gun-toting abilities that make her as good as any man. She lowers one of her guns and fires directly at her admiring, glaze-eyed customer. He reacts by flinching slightly - bewitchingly, she flashes a radiant, smiling grin back at him, revealing to everyone that she is using blanks in the potentially-potent gun. The audience applauds wildly for her attention-getting poses and presence.

With alternating left handed and right handed shots, she bursts six balloons, and then fires on a seventh balloon with an inverted pistol. To further demonstrate her dangerous feline talent and prowess, she bends over and fires between her legs, and also picks off objects precariously balanced close to the face of her female assistant. In a challenge to the audience, Packet dares someone in the audience to come onstage and test his skill against hers:

Frequently during her extensive travels, Miss Starr has been challenged by various local marksmen to shoot at competition with her. Tonight the little lady tells me that she is so confident of her ability that she is willing to double her standing offer of two hundred and fifty dollars to any person who can outshoot her. There is only one condition. The challenging local artist must agree to award to Miss Starr an honorarium of only ten percent of the stakes she offers - an honorarium of only $50 dollars against five hundred dollars. Do I hear a challenge?

The pals in the front of the audience pool their bills together and Bart volunteers for the challenge as "a young man who thinks he can shoot." As he ascends to the stage, Laurie circles around behind him like a wild animal, sizing him up and eyeing him from head to toe. He glances back at her - reciprocating the combative yet attractive gazes that preface the competition. To match his $50 dollars in cash with her five-hundred dollar wager, she extends her hand with a ring on her pinkie finger, purring: "Will this do?" After a preliminary gun duel using fanning shots, that he matches perfectly, the trick-shot artist increases the challenge by suspensefully and flirtatiously inviting him to try the skillful shooting of "crowns":

Laurie: How about the crowns? Would you like to light the matches?
Bart: Would you?
Laurie: (flirtatiously) Almost killed a man once. Shot a little too low.
Bart: So did I.

Bart dons the crown of matches and steps out the paces to climax the duel. As Laurie fires each shot toward him, squinting to increase her accuracy, she ignites five of the six matches on his crown - missing her last shot. [The mixing of erotic flames being ignited with their increasing passion for each other and for violent guns is symbolic of sexual foreplay during the couple's courtship.] When Packet suggests that Laurie's assistant wear the crown, Bart sarcastically asks: "What's the matter? You afraid I'll shoot too low?" So Laurie parallels his bravery by placing the crown on her head. After successfully igniting five of the six matches, Bart pauses for a moment, glances at Packet, and then fires the sixth and decisive, victorious shot. As the carnival show concludes, a chagrined Laurie cools the flames on the crown by blowing on them, and presents the winner with his wagered money and her ring - a symbol of their soul-mated wedding. A gracious winner after outshooting her, he returns the ring to her. Due to his aroused attraction to the performer, he is easily recruited for the gun act as her erotic partner:

Laurie: Here's the money and here's the ring. Take good care of it, won't you?
Bart: No, no, I, I don't think it would fit me.
Laurie: (invitingly) Thanks...What else do you do besides shoot?
Bart: It's been enough so far.
Laurie: Got a job?
Bart: No, not yet.
Laurie: Maybe you have. How about it Packy, you can always use a good man, can't you?

As Packet lights his cigar, his own jealousy is enflamed as he hears Bart ask Laurie: "Maybe I can see you later, hmm?" and she responds: "Why not?"

As the carnival moves to the next town, Bart, who has joined the act, is dressed in a Western buckskin outfit to match Laurie's cowgirl costume. He shares trailer living quarters with a clown named Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager), who assesses the carnival's money-making, corrupt racket of concessionaires: "Yes sir, we got the crooked-est little carnival layout west of the Mississippi. Why we've got more ways of making suckers than we got suckers. When we pull out of this burg tomorrow morning, the natives will have nothin' left but some old collar buttons and some rusty bobby pins." And he wisely advises the star-struck, spellbound, naive Bart about long-term happiness with Laurie:

...she ain't the type that makes a happy home...It's just that some guys are born smart about women and some guys are born dumb...You were born dumb.


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