Criterion Prediction #64: Gun Crazy, by Alexander Miller
Title: Gun Crazy, a.k.a. Deadly is the Female
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Harry Lewis, Russ Tamblyn, Morris Carnovsky
Synopsis: Bart Tare (Dall) is obsessed with guns; he’s not homicidal or violent, just an ace shot. After reform school and marksmanship training, Bart meets his match in an equally capable trick shooter Laurie (Cummins) at a carnival sideshow. The two sharpshooters fall in love when Bart joins Laurie in the carnival. Once they’re married, Laurie tempts him into a life of crime when their cash flow runs dry.
Critique: At the risk of sounding too precious or lofty I’d like start by saying Gun Crazy is like Baby Bear’s bed in the story of the Three Little Bears; in the world of film noir it’s “just right.”
Sometimes neo-noir can be too distancing; b-noir runs the inherent risk of showing its frayed edges a few times too often (as much as I love Detour, I wasn’t shocked that it was shot in a few weeks with a few thousand dollars). And the classics such as Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon are always satisfying and iconic but they have a veneer that feels a little too “safe.” The gritty accessibility of Joseph H. Lewis retains my admiration, and Gun Crazy navigates the ever-fertile territory with a smart, economical script, brimming with snappy dialogue, terse narrative beats, and the fragile moral compass that begets the genre.
Gun Crazy is a proficiently-executed thriller that has the DNA of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, as well as an earned inspiration for Arthur Penn’s legendary Bonnie & Clyde, but Gun Crazy retains a special place in this theoretical middle territory of unofficial, but identifiable, crime films. Lewis’ tactful time structure and the dual (triple should you count child actor Mickey Little in the flashback within a flashback) role Russ Tamblyn and John Dall making a more sensitive and sympathetic characterization of Bart, whose union with emblematic femme female Peggy Cummins (on par with Anne Savage, Barbara Stanwyck), accelerate their shared fascination into a full blown fetishization with guns, spurning their obligatory life of crime.
It’s an abstraction of the film noir ethical flipside; there’s no mustache-twirling heavy or hard-nosed cop tailing the antiheroes. Bart and Laurie aren’t oppressed victims of economic strife, nor are they star-crossed dreamers with delusions of grandeur, they happen to be endowed with their firearms, and decide to (like so many before and after) take what they know best and use it their advantage.
Gun Crazy is a still-prescient exploration of violence, where the Freudian component of analysis only begins to scratch the surface of a densely layered psychological script by Dalton Trumbo and of course Lewis’ direction.
Joseph H. Lewis is an interesting case, identified as a B-director with the finesse and eye for detail lends his work a pedigree of a petitioned stalwart who offers an unemphatic flare to what could have been a schlocky B-film with all of the clunky characteristics writers Trumbo and Lewis circumnavigated so skillfully. A rapid-fire script that has the stinging dialogue (especially from Cummins) and some technical notes that give this outing a historical edge in the arena of tech savvy admiration, the holdup sequence (or “Hampton Robbery”) shot in real time from the backseat of the getaway car is rightfully praised.
Gun Crazy is a smart film, shorn of studio dressing, but secured as a result of the period’s assurance. The players are actors, not stars; creating tangible characters thanks to dedicated performances from Dall and Dummins. Lewis’ subtle conveyance of directorial panache is significant, as it is unimposing. Tawdry flare notwithstanding this is a standout example of utilizing B-material with A-level execution,Gun Crazy exhibits the best of what a “product of its time” can be. Thankfully, they opted out of the dreadful alternative title Deadly is the Female.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Of course, Criterion is leading the charge in the home video market but Olive Films, Film Detective, Warner Archive, Flicker Alley, and Kino Lorber are doing good in providing reasonably-priced releases films like Kansas City Confidential, Too Late For Tears, and The Red House. Gun Crazy was formerly seen on those “Public Domain Special” DVD collections you’d find at retail stores (not to be taken as dismissive since I love those).
Having said that, the potential for Gun Crazy could be widened considering Criterion’s FilmStruck service, as it is in tandem with Turner Classic Movies. Gun Crazy is a Warner release, who happens to be a sibling company to Turner Entertainment. The DVD of Gun Crazy is fine, but this deserves the Criterion treatment.