Friday, May 23, 2014

Classic Cinema Corner: The Rollickin' Good Times of Joseph H. Lewis' Whirlwind On the Run B-Flick Masterpiece Gun Crazy

Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need for a good movie is a girl and a gun. For all we know, the Nouvelle Vague director was imagining Joseph H. Lewis' 1950 B-Picture, Gun Crazy, when he spoke these words. It would make more than perfect sense if he were, especially considering he and his compatriots' love of American film noir. I suppose though, that in the case of Gun Crazy, one could give top billing to the gun, not the girl. Yes, the girl, played by that smokin' blonde hot-to-trot, flash-in-the-pan Irish actress Peggy Cummins, is your quintessential femme fatale, and it was her genre-specific wiles that caused bad boy Bart (lead John Dall) to take up a life of robbing banks and running from the law, but really it is the gun, or in this case the many guns, that make both of these characters go all wobbly in the lower middle. Sam Adams of the Philadelphia City Paper wrote of the film, "The codes of the time prevented Lewis from being explicit about the extent to which their fast-blooming romance is fueled by their mutual love of weaponry, but when Cummins' six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it's clear what really fills their collective tank." I think that pretty much says it all - but let's go on anyway.

After a prologue featuring Russ Tamblyn as a teenaged Bart, made to explain the character's unnatural and inevitably tragic attraction to guns, Bart, now played by Dall, meets up with Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr at a sideshow carnival. Cummins, dressed in the most wet dream inducing of cowgirl outfits, replete with skin tight pants and dangling gun belt, goes mano y mano with Dall's smitten young man on the stage of her shilled marksmanship show. As these two take William Tell shots at each other, their fingers fondling their revolvers, their lusting eyes glistening with obvious desire, we become acutely aware that these two people want to shoot more than just guns at each other. With innuendo somehow getting past the censors of the day (though I am sure they could have gone even further if the code had not still been in effect), this run amok romp of guns and guns and more "guns," was pure sex. Of course, when the director, in an interview in Cult Films by Danny Peary, explains his directions as thus: "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions." How could this not be a film that was pure (censors willing) sex?

Since its initial release, the film, which not so incidentally was scripted by the then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo whose name was eventually and rightfully re-added to the credits many years later, has become a cult favourite. It's most important influence would be upon Arthur Penn, who took what Lewis did in Gun Crazy, and ripped it to glorious pieces in his code-shattering 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. Appropriately so, since the latter film is the story of a pair of real life bank robbers (and sexually charged gun enthusiasts) upon whom Gun Crazy was loosely based on in the first place.  Lewis' original 1950 film lent a lot to Penn's iconic sixties film. Its use of on location shooting and improvised dialogue, much of the film seemingly (and brilliantly) made up on the spot (in order to give it more of a frenzied realism, the bank robbing scene was shot without the knowledge of any of the passersby on the scene), were huge influences on Penn, and for that matter many other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, who has made allusions to the film on more than one filmic occasion, and of course the aforementioned French New Wavers, especially Godard who used it as a template for much of his debut Breathless

Dall and Cummins would never have the kind of film career one could call breakthrough or even overly successful.  Dall, known primarily for his stage work, had back to back successes with this film and Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, where he played Farley Granger's more cool minded partner in crime.  Still though, this was more than what the curvy Cummins is known for. Gun Crazy was Cummins only truly significant film work, and she has lived in the United Kingdom in contented retirement since 1961. But the impact these two made in a film like Gun Crazy will live on forever. After all, gun crazed as a boy or not, what red-blooded American lad could successfully fend off the advances, or even want to, of someone like Peggy Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr, no matter how tragic one knows the end circumstances to inevitably be? After all, the film has an alternate title of Deadly is the Female, so none of Cummins' alluringly deadly come-hitherness should come as any surprise. I suppose, in the end, Godard was right about needing just a girl and a gun to make a movie - and Joseph H. Lewis makes one hell of a B-flick, pop art motion picture out of these two things. Oh, and a whole lot of sexual tension to boot. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. The sex was leaping off the screen. Warren Beatty had to have seen this film more than once before he made Bonnie and Clyde. this is better than Duel in the Sun even though I love this camp classic as well. This is on my list of must haves.

  2. Yup. This was a huge influence on Penn and Beatty, when they were making Bonnie and Clyde. It almost plays as an homage. The film rests at #35 on my Favourites List (a list that one can check out by clicking on My Top 100 Films tab above) right between Goodfellas and Kiss Me Deadly.

  3. Looks like a true classic. And I love the poster!

  4. I've always thought of myself as the kinda girl who could go on a crime spree, so this film is right up my alley. Glad to see you bringing back your love of classic film. You used to do a lot more of it. Not that I don't like all the stuff you're doing now. Well, except for whenever you act all misogynistic and all. Yeah, okay. I'll stop now. Nice write-up on a great film.