This month, our cinematic classicist looks at the human love of firepower, and how one forgotten film noir in particular encapsulated everything good and bad, appealing and appauling, about this obsession with guns.
Should you be the sort of moviegoer who, while watching Bonnie and Clyde, noticed Faye Dunaway's .44 revolver first and her v-neck second, please pay a visit to moviebadgirls.com and its exhaustive list of "Girls With Guns In Cinema And Television". Even though it's not my favorite fetish-themed movie website (that'd be the Straitjackets in Film page -- -- which includes this review of The Green Mile: "This is a GREAT film. It has straitjackets, prisons, forced straitjacketing, a padded cell, and hosing down a prisoner. It is also a tearjerker. See it.")
I can't help admiring moviebadgirls.com's thoroughness of purpose, as evinced by its 1,500+ citations and recommendations. Here, one can find scenes of women holding guns while smoking (I Shot Andy Warhol), women holding two guns at once (A Better Tomorrow), masked women holding guns (Beverly Hills Cop), women holding guns with the sideways "gangsta aim" (Tomb Raider), women dressed as nuns holding guns (Ms. 45) and -- of course -- naked women holding guns (Big Bad Mama).
But where is Gun Crazy? No, not Guncrazy (1992), the teen outlaw pic Drew Barrymore made somewhere between rehab and the top of David Letterman's desk, but Gun Crazy (1949), aka Deadly Is The Female, a trashy little slice of fetish noir that should top the list of any firearm, uh, "enthusiast". While it can't offer any women shooting while dressed as a nun, to not include it on a site devoted to the thrill of distaff firepower is a serious oversight. (A quick double check proves it is on the master list, right between Guns For Women, a training video from 1989, and the Japanese revenge cheapie Gun Crazy: Episode 1. Good shooting, sir.)
The armed woman at the center of Gun Crazy's story is midway sharpshooter (as her barker/manager declares) "the famous, the dangerous, the beautiful Annie Laurie Starr! (Peggy Cummins)" But we're getting ahead of ourselves. I haven't even introduced the poor sucker at the helm, the sap protagonist every noir needs for its bathysphere dive into hell. That'd be Bart (Rusty Tamblyn), a good kid with a serious gun fixation. After breaking a shop window to steal a pistol -- he pauses for an instant after breaking the glass and reflexively throws his arms up in a crucifixion pose, a gesture that foreshadows his inevitable self-oblation at the altar of gun love -- he's arrested and brought before a juvenile court. His custodial big sister (Anabel Shaw) recalls how shooting a baby chick traumatized Bart so thoroughly he wouldn't ever aim at a living thing. Still, the judge senses something abnormal brewing in the boy. "I've just gotta have a gun," Bart haltingly tries to explain. "I don't know why, but I feel good when I'm shooting them."
Flash forward a decade and Bart (now played by John Dall) is back in town. He's successfully weathered a stint in reform school and the army, but is bored and wants something new. He's armed and restless, never a promising combination, and his buddies' suggestion to visit the traveling carnival (from the Latin, same root as carnal and carnage) seems as good a timekiller as any. This is no church social with a bingo wheel – the guys prowl a seedy midway crammed with fire-eaters, can-can girls, and an especially leer-provoking group of belly dancers. The men's stroll past the hoochie-coochie platform is a wise directorial decision from Joseph H. Lewis, ensuring the audience already has sex on the brain before the men get to the shooting tent. That way, when Laurie makes her entrance, silver pistols blazing and eyes flashing beneath the brim of her cowboy hat, we see why Bart leans forward a little in his seat. When she catches his appreciative gaze and levels her pistol coolly to pop a blank round in his (our) face, we're equally impressed.
But she's not shooting blanks for the rest of the show. She makes quick shrapnel of balloons, wiggling her hips and aiming her gun between her legs to pop the last, low-hanging sphere. When the barker announces she'll outshoot any man in the place, Bart steps up. The looks he shoots this hermaphroditic goddess of destruction makes his motivations quite clear. (Lewis's sole direction to Dall for this scene: "Your cock's never been so hard.") When she asks him to wear a crown of matches so she can light them one by one with whizzing bullets – "Almost killed a man once. Shot a little too low." she warns/entices -- it's a 'spider to the fly' level come-on. One whirlwind romance and quickie marriage later, Laurie lets her new chump know her idea of living it up can't be done on 40 bucks a week. "I don't want to look in the mirror and see nothing but a stick-up man staring back at me!" Bart feebly protests. "You'd better kiss me goodbye, Bart." is Laurie's unsentimental reply. In the next scene he's got a clerk at gunpoint. We all knew he never had a chance.
In an interview with film writer Danny Peary, Lewis described his rationale for casting a gay actor like Dall as Bart: "I wanted an actor who by osmosis or scent or whatever projected an inner weakness." To modern eyes, Bart is vulnerable and sincere but not necessarily weak. He's certainly nicer than his wife, who feels no sting of conscience when murdering her obstacles. But anyone, no matter how strong, can be at the mercy of a private obsession. In casting Dall (a lanky stage veteran with guileless good looks – think Guy Pearce with the gaunt edges rounded off – whose only screen credit equal to Gun Crazy was as the cold-blooded Brandon Shaw, the Leopold to Farley Granger's Loeb in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope), Lewis may have unconsciously suffused another level of meaning to Bart's character.
A homosexual in 1949 would have a deeper understanding of Bart's contradiction between his secret cravings and an equally strong desire to find a normal place in things. Bart wants many things that a post-war American man should want: a wife he loves, a handsome income, a certain degree of forcefulness and respect. But he also wants to be dominated by a capricious, violent woman and to shoot firearms as often as possible. Robbing banks at his wife's behest is an uneasy compromise between his antagonistic cravings.
Gun Crazy wasn't appreciated in its time (the New York Times review of its '50 re-release describes it as a "spurious concoction . . . basically on a par with the most humdrum pulp fiction" whose two leads "look more like fugitives from a 4-H Club than from the law."). Upon its post-Bonnie and Clyde rediscovery, however, its stock shot upwards to a rarefied "100% Fresh" rating on the (non-fetish) film site rottentomatoes.com. A couple things had to happen between 1949 and 1967 before movie buffs realized Gun Crazy's greatness. American audiences needed to get used to the look and feel of cinéma vérité, so as to comprehend the perfection of Gun Crazy's famous unbroken three minute and twenty-eight second shot where we loiter in the getaway car's back seat while Bart and Laurie execute a nervous daytime bank raid.
Foreign intellectuals, like the crowd at film journal Cahiers Du Cinéma, had to declare that films Americans regarded as disposable entertainment (like the two-fisted B-movies churned out by Poverty Row's Monogram Pictures) had artistic value. And the first flower of film noir had to wither, so the artifacts that remained shimmered with a newfound, golden-age rarity. But maybe the most important change is that Gun Crazy, because of its age and obscurity, moved from general release into the hands of revival houses, film societies and critics; namely, people who were already fanatical about films. And if you're fanatical about films, especially good films, you're got more in common with Bart than you realize.
To love film, in its own way, is to love guns: Travis Bickle's .357 revolver, Mr. White and Mr. Pink's Smith & Wessons, Neo's MP5, Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum. When a gun changes hands, or fires -- smoke from the muzzle in silent films, a big bang! in talkies -- the balance of power shifts, skewing the chemistry of a movie's plot and character and resolution. What other cinematic object has that consistent, non-negotiable power? Guns are the salt to the meat of Breathless and Full Metal Jacket and The Maltese Falcon and both Scarfaces, to the films of Godard and Hitchcock, Scorsese and Ford, The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee, Peckinpah and even Walt Disney -- how do you think Bambi lost his mother? Kiss kiss, bang bang. There's more than a little of us in Bart. In its original meaning of a magical, sacred object, we've all got a gun fetish.
Maybe that's why the abrupt double homicide at Gun Crazy's end isn't bothersome. If there's not going to be any more shooting, why bother? House lights up, please. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along.