Gun Crazy (1949)
Posted by Solomon on 3/17/2017, 10:08 am
Voted #6 in list of top 100 film noirs
Author: msroz from United States
16 March 2017
The forum named "The Blackboard", now become a very quiet place but once active, took a vote in 2006 on the 100 best film noirs, and "Gun Crazy" (1949) came in #6.
This is one of those films that made little stir, indeed was criticized more than praised, when it first came out; but has had its reputation rise through the years.
This film cuts through the niceties. It bares the drives and souls of its two main characters drawn or driven into a love and then an association that's sustained by robberies and then shootings and killings. The film builds its characters well, without any Hollywood gloss, without interjecting false comedy relief. Their aspirations, weaknesses, fears and uncertainties all form a basis for their crimes. The regrets, mainly of John Dall's character, combined with his attractions to Peggy Cummins and with her insecurities, place him almost into perpetual conflict. The introduction already reveals fault lines and stresses in these characters, as Dall is obsessed with guns and has even committed a juvenile crime to get them, one that led to reform school. Cummins has already participated in a murder with Berry Kroeger before we see her bond to him at his carnival. Both are gun crazy, but in vastly different ways.
The escape of this pair from the normal constraints of society leads them into an exhilarating freedom that quickly turns into pursuit. The film clocks into almost non-stop action as the two fugitives go on the run.
A movie with a similar rawness is "Baby Face Nelson" (1957). But "Gun Crazy" goes further in developing an atmosphere that somehow combines disparate elements of realism and dream, clarity and mist, control and impulse. The story and the storytelling seem constantly to be showing two poles within and between characters. The bold Cummins turns fearful at times, inducing her to kill. The hesitant Dall at times turns bold. The good youthful Dall (played by Rusty Tamblyn) is praiseworthy and won't kill, but he'll break a window and steal guns. He loves to shoot but an Army career teaching others to shoot is too boring. At first, Cummins wants Dall, but will turn on a dime unless he will help get the wealth she covets. At first, she's more or less the boss. By his attraction to her, she is the force holding them together. But later she tears up their plan for a two-car getaway and places herself solely in his command. Dall regrets robbing but then becomes the master planner. Every respite of the pair on their flight turns into more flight or another robbery.
This is a story with contrasts. Triumph of a sort leads into desperation. Love and resistance to killing turns in Dall's case into a final unexpected shot from his gun. Dall's torment from being a robber are all too real, yet to him it all seems like a dream. The clarity of the film gives way to a heated emotionality during their robberies and ultimately to an impenetrable mist that only gradually reveals their pursuers to them. Their control of others using guns gives way to an impulse that Dall had fought off earlier in the movie. The beginning plays out to its end. The rise gives way to the fall. Life gives way to death, but the passion of the lovers does not change. They would have it no other way but to follow their attraction and passion. If there is one element that does not change or provide contrast, it is this passion. Some of the passion shown in "Duel in the Sun" (1946) comes through as dominant in this movie.
--Next, some of my commentary along with an intriguing little evaluation method that would be interesting to carry further (IIRC, it was applied to about 75-80 films before I got sidetracked by something else)...
Posted by Don Malcolm on 3/18/2017, 6:14 pm, in reply to "Gun Crazy (1949)"
Good stuff, Mike. But with so many rediscovered noirs in the past 11 years, if we were to regroup things here and have another, more comprehensive poll, I'd have to knock down my original placement for GUN CRAZY (in the 6-10 group), though it's certainly somewhere near the Top 50.
It captures a particular romantic myth that is as irresistible as it is far-fetched, and there is a now a kind of retrospective convergence that elides the clunkier parts of the story. What happens to the characters is something that now reads better in descriptions than is the case when you actually watch it happen.
Joe Lewis did a wonderful job in turning the weaknesses of his lead actors into strengths: Dall's inherent cockiness, which is often so jarringly one-note in so many other contexts, is kept in check by what had to be a decision to play off the sexual fireworks and the on-the-edge-of-over-the-top volatility that Cummins brings to her role. A more "up-to-date" version of this tale would focus on the sexual frisson, and show more of how Dall's "command" is still mostly due to an erotic bonding, something that Lewis makes sure we get (Cummins, her bathrobe, and her legs, which in later years would be more explicit and repeated several times for extra titillation) and then retools into hysteria and desperation. Cummins is mostly one-note, but this animalistic portrayal is tempered by Dall's odd passivity and comes off as more nuanced than it actually is due to the blending of their interaction.
This is what creates a sympathy in the audience for the lovers, and ties into the glamorization of criminality that seems to prop up so many of the at-or-near-the-top noirs in America. I'm not nearly so convinced now that we should exalt this particular manipulation as I was back at the time of Noir25 poll, probably because the "inner criminal" impulse that Foster Hirsch so neatly coined is, at bottom, a form of glamorizing self-destruction when there are more realistic, more complex (as opposed to complicated), more existential, more socially significant forms of human contradiction that come into play in the very best of these films, where such impulses are more surprising, more solidly built on the nuances inherent in the collision of chance and fate, and richer in their exposition of the contradictions in human nature.
In terms of ranking noirs, I think I'd try to evaluate using three basic criteria:
1) Creation of tension, conflict, suspense and its carry-through (the "thrill ride" function);
2) Demonstration of "craft" (mise-en-scene, effectiveness of actors, editing, skill in the interaction between plot and screenwriting);
3) Degree of thematic depth that is able to emerge in the film, particularly in how 1) and 2) combine.
For GUN CRAZY, I'd score these three as 9, 9.5, and 6.5, respectively. From what we generally want in a noir, it scores high (1 and 2 averaging to 9.25). From what we want in a film that goes deeper into life issues and themes to think about once the thrill ride is over, it is arguably a lesser work (2 and 3 averaging to 8). I think all five of these rankings help us go further into what makes a film tick, and having all of them on hand would guard against one "gestalt" dominating at the expense of the others.
--Then, Mike strikes back at the notion of thematic depth...
Posted by Solomon on 3/19/2017, 10:09 am, in reply to "Re: Gun Crazy (1949)"
Following up, I googled on "themes in gun crazy 1950". There are lots of people suggesting lots of themes to this movie!
Then, there are people who question that it is film noir. Some see it as a social problem film: "...it was very much part of a cycle of films you may wish to call the ‘social problem thriller’ which encompasses works like The Wild One and plenty Elia Kazan productions, such as On The Waterfront (1954) and The Harder They Fall (1956)."
"Joseph H. Lewis’s film Gun Crazy is not a film noir. Gun Crazy is an existentialist film disguised as a film noir. It could also be classified as a two person crew gangster film, lovers on the lam picture, or possibly even a criminal psychology flick. It defies a simple definition as its two main characters and their story may comprise some or all of these elements. I’m far from the type of person who over-intellectualizes or reads too much into films (especially 1950s B-Movies) however, the philosophical dark waters of “Gun Crazy” run deep below its turbulent surface."
Or this: "Gun Crazy is really a robbers-on-the run movie with noir pretensions,..."
There is a ton of insightful commentary on this film. I like this take. Laurie verbally says what she wants, but it's not really as if she's sure of getting it. "Laurie never really gets any of her ‘things'; material gain from the couple’s crime spree is fleeting, and the guy isn’t up to much either. One senses that she knows this from the start, but cannot articulate the power of desire for desire’s sake; cannot admit to how much the violent process of satisfying that desire excites her." "Instead, Laurie Starr’s most memorable moments are non-verbal: flashes of action and intent from the mobile, expressive face and body of British actress Peggy Cummins, then in her early 20s - more tomboy than vamp, and exuberantly transported by action, violence and transgression, however hard her words might strive for conventionality. As the couple drive away from the scene of the film’s most celebrated heist, Cummins turns and faces the camera; as she sees the clear road behind them, her face blooms with pleasure, breaking into an impish and breathless grin."
Thematically, this particular comment says that Laurie doesn't know her self. The doing and the action and the striving and the moment of the action, the winning the game, the getting over of society are what really count for her. The thrill comes from being outside the law and getting away with it, even momentarily. Laurie expresses materialism verbally and enacts it through robbery, but her actual pleasure comes from kicking over the traces, as she put it to Dall. She's a rebel against society. In this way, she expresses her individuality. Dall's individual expression is through guns, but society thwarts that early on when his gun is taken away from him. His drive then finds an outlet with Laurie. This particular theme is individuality vs society's influence. Laurie's course has evidently been shaped earlier, but we can only guess at how she got in with Kroeger and the carnival. However, the carnival background expresses the theme of being on the fringe of society and providing at least some thrills that conventional life doesn't. The carnival is shown as finding ways to extract people's cash in hidden ways, as being outside conventional law.
--My "tat" (as opposed to my "wad") follows Mike's...well, let's leave that to your imagination...with respect to levels of depth in the film
Posted by Don Malcolm on 3/21/2017, 1:47 pm, in reply to "Re: Gun Crazy (1949)"
A claim of thematic depth (as in the second quote here) is not itself a demonstration of thematic depth.
And the lack of depth in story, no matter how tightened by Dalton Trumbo and expertly ensvisioned by Lewis, is precisely demonstrated in the character analysis of Annie Laurie Starr (fourth graf). The problem is that mere materialism isn't sufficient to explain how this amour fou becomes so all-consuming. And the backstory, as in many noirs of this type, is what must remain sketchy--if only to support the momentum of the story and maximize the "pace" of the narrative.
The "more tomboy than vamp" comment is very interesting, however, because it suggests a different point of connection--one that takes us to the dawn of film noir in France and a segment of the hard-boiled tradition that focuses on deadly, seductive women. If Annie Laurie is not a highly practiced femme fatale, and is just breaking loose into the gun mania that lashes her together with Bart Tare, then instead she is a teenage psychopath just waiting to be set on fire. The key here is "teenage," because the French knew that putting a precocious girl-woman into the mix as the "femme fatale" was the key to sowing the seed of prurience in the minds of the viewers (see LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR and LE DERNIER TOURNANT)--that something forbidden was in existence and its revelation would expose the decadence and corruption that it was tied to--a kind of surrogate for incest that exists in a patriarchal society the way men want younger women. (Even with patriarchy, it is only legitimized in society by various forms of egregrious wealth.)
In the case of Annie Laurie she's fallen in with such a man (although owning a carnival show ain't quite like being Cornelius Vanderbilt...) and breaks free from it, but she is ill-equipped to survive in the real world due to the psychological damage that's been inflicted. From our post-modern lens, we're looking for more overt forms of incest and molestation, but sometimes lack of love (inferiority) and jealous materialism morph into delusions of grandeur--in GUN CRAZY that formula becomes explosive due to the presence of firearms.
GUN CRAZY provides us with a paint-by-numbers version of this but it chooses to channel this madness into a thrill ride. And it does that with sufficient gusto--plus manipulating the story so that neither of these weaklings are capable of doing the "smart" thing once they're in over their heads--makes it seem as though the psychological themes were considered, then abandoned in the service of amping up the thrill ride. Trumbo's writerly ironies (the line about the two lovers going together like guns and ammo) doesn't add depth, but it certainly adds spice...
In THE BIG COMBO Lewis more clearly capitalizes on a script (ironically, written by a man--Philip Yordan--who is rarely celebrated as a craftsman and whose greatest fame/infamy is for his "front" activities)--that creates a much more potent parallel between this male obsession with younger women (ironically, Jean Wallace was in her early 30s when playing Susan Lowell, but her character is significantly younger, a fallen upper-crust prodigy on the piano whose psychological development has been arrested by her masochistic relationship with Mr. Brown). Leonard Diamond seems to be trying to "step up in class" given his prior romantic history, and it takes a rather violent awakening to pull him out of the prurient side of his zeal "for justice." The themes are verbalized in ways that are neither too didactic nor too time-consuming, they are explored in much greater depth and the parallels between Brown and Diamond are handled with great skill as regards to how these parallels dovetail with the action in the film.
All of this, of course, is a long-winded way of suggesting that I think your grade for GUN CRAZY should be less than 10/10. THE BIG COMBO is Lewis' masterpiece--rescreenings of both these films since the 2006 poll have further solidified that viewpoint.
--Mike counters "depth" with a somewhat amorphous notion of "gestalt," inventories the surfaces and features of GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO (per my hijacking of the discourse)...and then brings in an "outside expert," the man who would be a motif, the estimable and indefatigable Mike Grost
Posted by Solomon on 3/21/2017, 5:52 pm, in reply to "Re: Gun Crazy (1949)"
The Big Combo gets a 10 too. It's 5 or 6 years later. I give Gun Crazy credit for being what it was in an earlier time frame, innovating for its time.
At the upper end of the scale, 9 and 10 are virtually the same. I would not go below 9 for Gun Crazy because 8 is equivalent to 3.2/4 on Maltin's scale and Gun Crazy is more like 3.5/4 for me which is a bit less than 9.
Gun Crazy is strong in its own ways, and The Big Combo strong in its ways. Gun Crazy has energy and a kind of subversive anarchic thread to it. The Big Combo has better music, better bits of action like the hearing aid scene, and good triangle conflict. But the action flags at times, talk takes over, and the sexual attraction seems to me more feigned. All comments are memories -- I'm due for a rewatch.
From my pre-modern vantage point, I definitely am not looking for either incest or molestation in modern noirs. But when they appear, it's necessary to figure out what they're supposed to mean and why they're there, why the movie makers wanted them there.
I was unimpressed with Gun Crazy the first time I saw it. By the 3rd time I began to think it has a high degree of uncompromising wholeness, and I favor that. The movie takes an unlikely couple by usual standards, makes them seem more likely, and then follows their story from start to finish without introducing anything else that compromises what the story is.
I'll have to reserve comment on The Big Combo until the next time I see it. My comments above already suggest that what I recall is more the elements of which it is made than an overwhelming thematic feeling. There's that suggestive love scene with Peters. There's the presence of Fante and Mingo, who almost steal the picture. There's that beautiful foggy photography.
Posted by Solomon on 3/22/2017, 6:13 am, in reply to "Re: Gun Crazy (1949)"
I thought I might have a look at Mike Grost's comments. I was surprised to find that he treats Joseph Lewis so extensively. That's here: http://mikegrost.com/lewis.htm
It's actually a monograph.
Grost is analytical in a certain way, looking across a director's films at the techniques used, plot elements, etc. That approach doesn't compare films. At the end, he provides some rankings and suggests they are subjective:
My Name Is Julia Ross ***
The Jolson Story **
So Dark the Night **1/2
The Swordsman **1/2
The Return of October **1/2
The Undercover Man ***
Gun Crazy ****
A Lady Without Passport ***1/2
Retreat, Hell! **
Desperate Search *
Cry of the Hunted **1/2
The Big Combo ****
Man On A Bus **1/2
A Lawless Street ****
7th Cavalry 1/2
The Halliday Brand ***
Terror in a Texas Town **
"By contrast, ratings are far more vague. The above ratings don't explain what factors caused me to give one film a high rank, and another a low one. And many readers would use other criteria than I did, anyway, to rank Lewis' films.
"Because of this, it is not really clear that the above ratings have the slightest value, accuracy, or any real informational content."
Below that ranking, he analyzes many films in minute detail, and we can find Gun Crazy there and The Big Combo. Although Grost's observations are factual, perhaps they reveal a little about why he rated these two films as he did.
--Grost's comments about the two films did not get copied over here; I followed with a few observations about his method and then invoked the noir-o-meter to postulate a theory (derived from patterns in the "N-O-M" data) as to why certain noirs become exceptionally popular
Posted by Don Malcolm on 3/26/2017, 5:17 pm, in reply to "Re: Gun Crazy (1949)"
Grost is certainly an interesting character, pretty sound in terms of his usage of more abstruse film terms, though he tends to get bogged down in motifs. It's an effort that's worth a look when trying to validate tendencies and how obsessive they are (one could almost equate that type of obsession with "auteurism," which is one clue that the the theory/practice that has sprung up in the wake of the New Wave tends to strongly favor one mode of "cinematic thinking" over all others).
I think there are definite limits to such an approach, no matter how copiously annotated it may be, and I'm pretty comfortable with the tripartite evaluation method as a way of benchmarking films. The tricky part is to get folks to agree on what the themes are and how well/deeply they've been explored.
What I notice in the ancillary measurements of the Noir-o-Meter is that the noirs that grade high in "sex" and/or "violence" and/or "alienation" (calculated separately from only slightly interlocking elements in the method) tend to be the ones that are highly rated--or, at least, become films where intense cults have formed around them.