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Thursday, 5 August 2010

Gun Crazy (1950)

There is probably no such thing as the 'perfect little B movie', but this one sure comes close. It is also a fine example of Film Noir with a desirable female basically corrupting a decent man. Directed by the largely ignored Joseph H. Lewis, who had a prolific career in low-budget movie-making, it is one of his few memorable flicks. Two others that remain long in memory are "My Name is Julia Ross" (1945) and "Terror in a Texas Town" (1958) with its enduring image of Sterling Hayden strutting up the deserted main street of a small town to face the baddies wielding only a harpoon.

Similarly the leads here did not enjoy particularly distinguished film careers. Welsh-born Peggy Cummins, despite her adorable looks, never made it big in films and John Dall had only two earlier memorable roles starting with "The Corn is Green" (1945) and reaching a highpoint in Hitchock's "Rope" (1948); the balance of his career was largely on television before dying at the relatively young age of 52. As unstarry as these two may be, the balance of the cast are equally unknown, other than little Russ (here billed as Rusty) Tamblyn playing Dall as a teenager. However Lewis has drawn sizzling performances from Cummins and Dall who play criminal lovers on the run, much like Bonnie and Clyde, but with a lot more heat and passion. The title has a double meaning. It describes both Dall, who has had an obsession with guns since childhood -- an obsession which landed him both in reform school and a job as a shooting instructor in the Army -- and Cummins who literally goes crazy and out of control when faced with the enpowerment that a gun gives her. Their eyes lock when he first sees her doing her sharp-shooting act at a carnival, and her interest is piqued further when he accepts and wins a challenge to outshoot her. He joins the carnival act, but their sexual attraction is blatant to the jealous proprietor, who fires them.

While Dall is at heart a good guy who is unable to willingly kill even a small animal, Cummins has a criminal past and lusts after riches and an easy life. At the risk of losing her, Dall reluctantly participates in a series of stick-ups and they begin a precarious life on the lam. This film shares a doomed sensibility with Robert Altman's later "Thieves Like Us" (1974), but it is Cummins' embodyment of a sexual siren that drives the action. As always there is the lure of doing one last 'big job' in order to raise the money to retire in obscurity and as always things go wrong, wrong, wrong, especially as Dall becomes as much a murderer as the hard-to-satisfy Cummins. There is a lovely symbol in her purchasing a showy fur stole with the loot from the last job, inappropriately wearing it on their last carefree night at a fun fair, and then having to leave it on the sidewalk when it falls off as they run from the police. The movie's alternate title is "Deadly is the Female" and Cummins takes on this caveat in spades.

This film has so much going for it that it transcends its Poverty Row pedigree. Apart from the leads' palpable fraught attraction, Lewis is working to a highly literate script, part written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, and has mastered a highly pictorial style. The camerawork in the final showdown set in a misty swamp furnishes as strong a climax as this wonderful small movie deserves. If you don't know "Gun Crazy", by all means seek it out.
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