Gun Crazy (1950)

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis

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Gun Crazy is an old B movie that feels like a 60’s French movie.  It would go on to inspire many of the French New Wave filmmakers who would in turn influence many American directors of the 1970s.  The ‘American New Wave’ movement is considered to have started in the late 60s, with Bonnie and

Clyde, a film very similar in nature and style to Gun Crazy, a story about two gun-toting lovers on the run.

From an AV Club article: “In 1964, when screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton started developing the project that would eventually become Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde—the hit that kicked off the New Hollywood era—they thought that there wasn’t a single American director who could do the story right. Instead, they arranged meetings with two of their New Wave idols, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who were both visiting New York. The directors turned the script down; instead, they arranged for the writers to see a private screening of Gun Crazy.”

Gun Crazy is incredibly lean and to the point.  It starts with the arrest of a young boy, Bart (John Dall), for breaking a storefront window and stealing a gun.  Then in a quick court case, several witnesses show up to attest to Bart’s innocence.  He would never kill someone, his friends say, implying that his fascination with guns is harmless and simply peculiar.

Soon Bart is an adult and still just as obsessed with firearms as ever before.  He returns to his hometown where he meets Annie (Peggy Cummins), a gun-toting performer in a traveling circus act.  Bart’s love for her almost patches his sexual obsession with guns, and when he saves her from her abusive boss/lover/I’m not sure exactly, they hit the road.

Like Bart, Annie isn’t afraid to fire her weapon, but unlike him, she isn’t as afraid of taking a life or two, having killed a man already in St. Louis.  In need of money, they rob a series of banks, but Bart remains adamant that they never kill anybody.  One of these bank robberies was shot in a single take, from inside a car, on location.  The staged robbery was unannounced, and people on the street believed it to be the real thing.

To achieve this effect, director Joseph H. Lewis fit his bulky camera into the back of a limo, having removed everything but the two front seats.  This shooting style was incredibly innovative for the time, though I’d be lying if I said to what degree.  It just feels innovative, and much of the film, in fact, feels this way.  Where most films would shoot a driving scene in a studio, against a pre-recorded backdrop, Gun Crazy goes out on the streets, adding a sense of realism to the story, something many subsequent French films (Breathless for example) would strive for.

On the run and in need of one final cash grab, they rob a meat-packing company, and in the process Annie kills two people.  They agree to go their separate ways after the incident, at least for a few months so as to skirt suspicion, considering the cops are looking for a man and woman combo.  Instead, they throw their plan out the window and travel together, riding the high of what they accomplished which only seems to masquerade as love for one another.

Eventually they are cornered, including a run in with characters (friends and family) we met in the first act.  The film ends with Annie and Bart hiding in a misty field at night as the cops, one of Bart’s childhood friends, quickly approach.  When they announce that they have them surrounded, Annie prepares to shoot them, and seeing this, Bart shoots her.  Then the cops shoot him, and both lie dead, the end.

It’s an appropriate but grim ending, one that European directors would seem to embrace while most American films shied away.  Gun Crazy, then, feels way ahead of its time.  It’s a beautifully-shot film that embraces the dark side of its characters without offering much in the way of redeeming characteristics.

The film was written by Dalton Trumbo under a pseudonym, after he had been blacklisted from Hollywood.  This apparently wasn’t revealed until forty years later.

Up Next: LBJ (2017), The Savages (2007), The Killing (1956)

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