When I think of film noir classics, Gun Crazy doesn’t immediately spring to mind, in the way that higher-profile examples like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past do. Nonetheless, the movie has achieved a certain status as, according to the US National Film Registry, a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movie.
The screenplay, written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and credited to Millard Kaufman, back in the bad old days, depicts a young boy named Bart Tare, who has a real obsession with guns. At age 14, he’s caught robbing a gun from a hardware store. And let’s not dwell on the weirdness of a hardware store selling guns, okay?
But even though he’s enamored with firearms, Bart isn’t a killer at heart. His friends attest to his basic goodness, having witnessed his refusal to kill animals during a hunt.
As a result of his juvenile thieving, Bart does a stint in reform school, followed by the army. Afterward, he returns to civilian life, as obsessed with guns as ever.
Bart is played as an adult by John Dall, portraying him as a pretty decent person, which almost wiped my memory of his acting like a psycho in Rope. (No pun intended there! Okay, maybe a small one. 🙂 ) He ends up watching a sharpshooter show with some friends. It’s at the moment when the Wild West show’s Big Attraction, markswoman extraordinaire Annie Laurie Starr, enters the picture that you know trouble of some sort will be brewing soon.
Not only is her character skilled and flamboyant, but her first appearance in the film shows her advancing straight at the camera, a look of challenge in her expression. This may be one of the most aggressive entrances a woman ever made in a film noir back then.
And then she invites an audience member to go up against her in a shooting contest. Naturally, good old Bart takes the bait. And matches her, skill-wise.
It’s not hard to see what’s in the cards for these two. First, love, then marriage, then … a couples crime spree, many years before films like Bonnie and Clyde or Fun with Dick and Jane were considered palatable for audiences.
Yes, despite the fact that Laurie warns Bart that she’s basically bad to the bone, they end up marrying. And when money is tight, Laurie gives Bart an ultimatum: commit crimes or split up.
Needless to say, this does not lead anywhere good.
What raises this example of film noir up a cut above many is its examination of the combined themes of greed, power, and domestic relations.
As femme fatales go, Laurie relies to some degree on her looks and standard “feminine wiles” to get what she wants, but not nearly as much as she does on her sheer determination to avoid poverty, as well as her formidable sharpshooting skills.
Peggy Cummins delivers a dynamite performance, and John Dall, a touching one. The scene at the end with Bart’s family provides a poignant segue into the movie’s inevitable tragic end.
If you’re a film noir enthusiast, don’t miss this one.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Produced by Frank and Maurice King
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and MacKinley Kantor (based on “Gun Crazy”(1940), a story from The Saturday Evening Post by MacKinley Kantor)