19 February 2013

PERSONAL CANON: A GIRL AND A GUN

We're not so far past Valentine's Day that I can't share with you what I think to be one of the great, specifically American love stories ever put to film, a sex-soaked film noir from either 1949 or 1950, depending on your source. Customarily known nowadays as Gun Crazy, it went through most of its production under that name, until the powers that be decided to give it a title that they felt was sexier and classier just prior to its release, Deadly Is the Female; that being far and away the worse of the two possibilities, the film was a failure during its first release, and was put back into theaters under its original name, where it became one of the most beloved classics of its genre. Despite nobody being entirely sure what to officially call it, or when it officially came out.

Trivia's fun, but it's really not at all the point; the point is that it could be called Kitten O'Shea and the Wubble-Gum Trees, and it would still be among the most overtly erotic films of the post-WWII era, though that being the case it would undoubtedly have a hell of a time finding its target audience. Anyway, though eroticism is certainly one thing - Gun Crazy (as we'll be calling it, since it is better, shorter, and more famous) is rare among Hays Office-era films in more or less explicitly parading around phallus imagery - the film isn't great just because the one specific couple depicted onscreen has as much sexual charge between them as you're going to ever find in a film of this vintage, but because of how it uses them to paint a much broader picture of a society fascinated by violent acts and power dynamics: it's a film about people being sexually aroused by firing guns. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Plot-wise, Gun Crazy is familiar territory for anyone who's seen the significantly more prestigious and influential Bonnie and Clyde, for Gun Crazy (adapted by a pseudonymous Dalton Trumbo from a magazine story by MacKinlay Kantor) is itself inspired rather directly by the crime rampage of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker; the only difference is that it's been brought up to the then-modern day. Bart Tare (John Dall) has, since his youth, been obsessed with guns; after the war, he is casting about, looking for a job that will involve handling them, when he stumbles across a circus sideshow starring Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a sharpshooter almost as gifted as Bart himself. Smitten, he joins the circus, but after threatening the owner, also hunting for Laurie's hand, the two find themselves out of a job, in love, and on the wrong side of a nasty patch of bad luck that leaves them with no obvious way to make cash other than to employ those same precious guns in hold-ups. Thus begins a crime spree spreading from Illinois to Montana to southern California.

It's the kind of plot that writes itself, in other words, though I'm inclined to say it's better - in fact, a hell of a lot better - than Bonnie and Clyde itself, enjoying significantly greater narrative economy and less self-aware mythologising, for starters. Anyway, the appeal of Gun Crazy really isn't its story, because how many times have we seen that, especially in film noir of that period: the guileless all-American guy falls in with a greedy woman who wants everything on a platter right now, they embark on a life of crime that ends badly. It takes more to raise that scenario from "good enough for noir fans" to "good enough to make you a noir fan for life", and Gun Crazy has a lot more, though broadly speaking it's all owing to either the acting, or the mise en scène: these are great, highly specific but also broadly applicable characters, and the frames in which they wander are among the most perfect in film noir.

On the acting front, it's really hard to imagine a pair of more perfectly cast down-and-out antiheroes than Cummins and Dall. He's a great idiot sad-sack: no disrespect to Dall (who, if he can be rightfully called "best-known" for anything, it's for being the one who isn't Farley Granger in Hitchcock's Rope), but he certainly wasn't cast for his movie star looks, and just that one element alone makes Bart a compelling figure: he's a normal, kind of grubby and dumpy fella, and he's playing way out of his league with Laurie, and that alone explains a lot. But Dall's performance goes beyond that, too: there's a sense, especially in the middle of the film, that he's aware of being played for a dupe and makes the conscious choice to allow that to happen, because it's not like he has a better second option.

It's Cummins, though, who makes the movie. Simply put, her Laurie is one of the great female performances in noir, and that is of course a backhanded compliment, when we consider the generally degraded, overtly misogynist way that women are portrayed in the genre. But that, in and of itself, is what makes the character so extraordinary: here is no predator who sizes up her male victim solely because of her Ee-vil Vagina. Perhaps the most unconventional aspect of the movie is how unabashedly clear it is that, whatever her femme fatale bona fides might be, Laurie is first and foremost motivated by a very genuine love for, and sexual infatuation with, Bart; and Cummins plays this astoundingly well, from the first moment where she's checking him out with a lusty forthrightness rare in classical Hollywood cinema, to the moments nearer the end where a proper femme fatale would be freaking out and hissing, and Cummins's beatific face, covered in grime and sweat, communicates something entirely different. Namely, that she doesn't care if everything is going to hell around her, because she has the man she adores to go to hell with.

Which brings us back to the film's sexual angle, because golly. You could watch '40s and '50s movies for a week and not find one single scene that is as open about the fact that the leads are thinking about rubbing their naked bodies against each other as a good half of Gun Crazy is. Director Joseph H. Lewis related the too-good-to-be true story that his single piece of direction to either actor:
"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.'"
Whether that happened or not, it's exactly the performance that both of them give, right down to her being the calculating leader, he being the puberty-dazzled adolescent. Better films have been made without any scene as perfect as Gun Crazy's great highlight, the outrageously carnal shooting match where Bart and Laurie meet; staged by Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan in several suggestive frames (Cummins looms over the camera; Bart recedes from it, slightly overlit to make his face look even more open and hungry), with singularly suggestive blocking in which Cummins e.g. bends over and shoots a target through her open legs. I do not, as a rule, approve of Freudian interpretations of art, but you'd have to want to not see how much this movie is about Laurie getting off on playing with her metal penis, in order to miss it.

Penis-imagery and kinky sexual fetishes aside - and that's strictly a rhetorical flourish, because there really is no Gun Crazy without those two things - the film is a visual masterpiece throughout, as wholly Expressionist in effect as any other film noir without being, necessarily, strict Expressionism. The film has an extremely characteristic style, heavy on a certain type of shot in which a character's cut-off close-up occupies one-half of the frame, while important action happens behind them; if comic books had anything like the visual sophistication they'd get a couple of decades down the line, I'd say that's the kind of image, but instead we're mostly just seeing Lewis and Harlan playing around with deep focus and multi-layered composition in strikingly unconventional ways, depicting character psychology in a way that is by no stretch of the imagination subtle, but is powerfully effective and direct (and that, maybe, is what I meant by calling it "Expressionist in effect": easy to see what they're doing and why, easy to feel the impact of it at the same moment).

Even setting aside that kind of very distinctive framing, the whole movie is just damn gorgeous, right from the opening scene: a chiaroscuro pantomime in which a teenage Bart (Russ Tamblyn, still in his "Rusty"days) stumbles through a nightmarish, rain-soaked soundstage to break into a pawn shop and steal a pistol. Film noir is, after all, the only American genre named for the way the movies looked, and they have a tendency towards striking visuals; Gun Crazy is not, perhaps, exceptional in this, except insofar that, married to the excellent individual shots, it is certainly more striking and overt in its visual language than most things.

Anyway, it's a film with a little bit of everything: terrific filmmaking, unbeatable acting, and a rich nasty streak that gives it a hell of a personality, married to a flesh humanity that makes it all completely recognisable even so. I'm not fool enough to toss around phrases like, "my all-time favorite film noir", but there's no question that Gun Crazy would be a very important part of that conversation.

3 comments:

Anthony said...

I can see where a title like, 'Deadly is the Female,' wouldn't work...

Mysterious F. said...

Tim, are you also a fan of Lewis' other famous noir, The Big Combo?

Brandon said...

I have to make a case for John Dall... he's no Clift, but I've always had a soft spot for him and his adorable half smile. Still, thanks for giving him some credit. Most thoughts on the film seem to say "Cummins is awesome!" and accuse Dall of simply taking up space, which, I'm sorry, but you don't get those scenes if Cummins is doing all of the work alone.

Anyway. Thanks for the thoughts on the film. It has a similar place in my own personal canon, I always love hearing about it, and your classic reviews are probably my favorite things you do.