Monday, November 4, 2013

FI: Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy
US, 1950
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis

The opening of Gun Crazy is reminiscent of the old socially-conscious gangster movies made in the pre-code era. Our protagonist, Bart Tare (played as a teen by a young Russ Tamblyn), breaks into a store to steal a gun and immediately gets caught. In a hearing, his older sister (Anabel Shaw), who appears to be raising Bart alone, and a pair of better-off friends plead his case. We see Bart in flashback, remorseful about killing a chick with a BB gun and, later, unable to join his friends in shooting a mountain lion: his moral fiber is established. Still, the judge sends him to reform school, and we don't see him again until he's finished school and spent time in the army teaching marksmanship. This intro sets the stakes both for Bart's unique gun fetish and the lifelong friendships that will continue to contrast with his own hard-luck story.

Now an aimless adult, Bart (John Dall) gets into a shooting contest at a carnival, where his opponent is the lovely Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). Soon the two are lovers and, thanks to Laurie's lavish tastes, they're unable to make it far on Bart's old army money. She suggests they use their dead aim to rob people without hurting anyone. It's pretty clear, however, that she's been down that road before, and that people got hurt and will get hurt again. The script, written by MacKinley Kantor and a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, makes Bart into a man unable to resist his impulses when it comes to sex, love, and the potential for violence. He enjoys the power guns give him, and even if he never wants to use it to harm anyone, it's clear he likes playing with fire. Laurie, in the mold of so many femmes fatales before her, tells him she's no good, but he's snared; once things go pear-shaped, it's too late for either of them to turn back. It's a classic fatalistic noir story, but one driven by strong character stakes.

Joseph H. Lewis (whose The Big Combo is another classic noir) brings a quick pace and action that supplements the film's character-based roots. There are some flashy choices for staging and shooting, including a complicated long take during one robbery, an elaborate dance hall fake-out, and an extended heist scene in a meatpacking plant. But though the film is no less stylized than your standard noir picture, there's a sense of naturalism in the dialogue that keeps things grounded. Dall's line readings, in particular, often feel far less stagy and written than in most of the era's performances. This realism contributes greatly to the energy the lead pair bring to their scenes, and also serves to tie the stakes even more strongly to the characters. In spite of the social realist elements of its intro, Gun Crazy isn't as critical of society as many noir pictures, nor are its world and environment as oppressive. In the end, what makes the film so affecting is that grounding in character and choice. It feels real, and its darkness is earned through the disappointment of the friends and family who won't give up on them, and the violence and terror the leads bring to a world that's trying its best just to get by.

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