(1950) Directed by Joseph H. Lewis; Written by MacKinlay Kantor and Millard Kaufman (aka: Dalton Trumbo); Based on a story originally published in The Saturday Evening Post by MacKinlay Kantor; Starring: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger, Harry Lewis, Nedrick Young and Russ Tamblyn; Available on DVD
“…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.” – Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn)
A big thanks to Steve from Down Among the “Z” Movies (you can also find him on Twitter through his handle, @amy_surplice) for providing a few choice suggestions for Noir-Vember, including the featured movie du jour, Gun Crazy. Today’s low budget offering might not be as well-known as some other films from the era, but it’s no less vital. It’s a pulpy exploration of greed, lust and murder, ably directed by Joseph H. Lewis, and co-written by MacKinlay Kantor (from his original story) and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (working under the pseudonym Millard Kaufman).
Bart Tare’s infatuation with firearms is established in the opening scene, as he fumbles an attempt to pilfer a revolver from a store window display. In the following courtroom scene, we learn this incident is merely the culmination of a singular obsession that he’s fostered his entire short life. 14-year-old Bart (played by Russ Tamblyn, as “Rusty” Tamblyn) is sentenced to four years in juvenile hall, and subsequently completes a successful stint in the Army, teaching his fellow soldiers how to shoot. After he’s discharged, adult Bart (John Dall) finds his old buddies Clyde and Dave (played by Harry Lewis and Nedrick Young, respectively). They’ve moved on with their lives (Clyde is now a sheriff’s deputy and Dave is a newspaper reporter), but Bart is still struggling with his identity. Everything changes when the friends visit a traveling circus, and he spots the woman of his dreams.
For the first time in his life, he’s captivated by something other than guns, although the object of his desire happens to be a female sharpshooter in a sideshow. From the beginning, Laurie (Peggy Cummins) is the dominant one in their relationship, goading him down a dark path (“I want a guy with spirit and guts.”). Together, they accomplish what might not have been done separately, embarking on a whirlwind crime spree. As they roam from town to town, with one small-time robbery after another, the stakes keep increasing. Bart detests the idea of shooting anyone (his sister Ruby comments, “It’s something about guns that gets him, not killing.”), but Laurie isn’t averse to murder if she can get what she wants. He continually expresses remorse for his actions, but he’s powerless to stop when faced with her formidable charms. Although it’s clear she’ll never have enough to satiate her desire for the better things in life, she talks her naïve partner into one more heist.
It’s surprising that Gun Crazy made it past the Production Code censors, striking savvy audience members right between the eyes with its blatant Freudian imagery and themes. Bart is stuck in an arrested stage of development (what Mr. Freud deemed the phallic stage), feeling empowered by the act of shooting, unable to function professionally, or perhaps sexually, outside of the milieu of guns. In one of the more over-the-top scenes, Laurie straddles a six-shooter between her legs to fire at targets, in a rough mimicry of intercourse. The gun becomes an extended metaphor for sex, control and empowerment. Aside from Bart’s moralistic objections to his current life of crime, and his expressions of regret, there’s something gratifying that compels him to continue down a self-destructive path with Laurie at his side. In the movie’s fog-shrouded climax, they’re immersed in a purgatory, where the worlds of the living and dead merge.
Despite the fact they do awful things, you can’t help but root for Bart and Laurie on some level, and almost want them to get away. But in an era when films were bound by the Code, you know that’s not going to happen. One gets the distinct impression, however, that the overt moralizing is just lip service in a film that paints its gun-blazing duo in romantic tones. Compared to some of its higher profile contemporaries, Gun Crazy won’t win any awards in the dialogue department, but few genre examples provide as pure, pulpy entertainment, or so nakedly flaunt how good it feels to be bad. Sure, there might be better film noirs out there, but few are as deliciously fun, delivering the sort of lurid situations found in dime store novels. Just be sure to check your moral compass at the door before watching this one, and you’ll have a good time.