Gun Crazy

(Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1949)


Violently Happy

Once upon a time, movies began like this: with a depopulated view of some street scene or landscape or inanimate object, just sitting there timelessly while the credits roll and the main musical theme plays. At the start of Gun Crazy it is raining, and we are angled toward an empty, urban corner. Then at last, after this Antonioni-esque contemplation, fiction begins with a bold, brisk stroke. A troubled, intense looking boy enters the frame. He stares at the guns in a shop window. He smashes the glass, takes the coveted object. He runs and falls and the gun skids along the ground – right up to the feet of a cop. Anguished looks. The rain on the boy's face.

It is important to stay close to the purity, and the materiality, of this magnificent, delirious film. It is a movie of eternal moments, instants that flare up and smack you without much prior explanation. A movie of close-ups: dark brooding poems of excited faces caught in paroxysmic expressions, heads cradled together in exhaustion, mouths colliding with an urgent, desperate desire. A movie with bold, explosive accelerations of figural style, those bravura shots and long takes that buffs love to fetishise: most amazingly, the bank robbery scene filmed in one shot, an overexposed landscape flying past the front windscreen, with the camera mounted in the back seat of the car, suddenly darting forward and looking to the right for a bit while the action plays on outside the car, and then snapping back to first position. A movie full of running, falling, colliding bodies in whip-track, full-frame motion. A movie whose astonishing short-cuts, condensations, abbreviations and ellipses of plot and staging – born, of course, from extreme economy of means – today look positively Bressonian.

And once upon a time, main characters in films were introduced like this: a big intro from a sleazy sideshow barker, followed by a frame that's empty for a split second, the camera angled up at some indifferent bit of ceiling, and then a woman's arms moving forward and filling the frame, her hands shooting guns with flair and precision, and then her face, wild and passionate, frozen and imprinted on my brain for eternity in these few precious frames.

Who are the main characters in Gun Crazy, these B cinema icons with the names Barton Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins)? They have a kind of psychology, and even a bit of backstory, but they are mainly essential, elemental, driven, diagrammatic beings. They are both defined by their extreme emotional relation, and reaction, to guns. For Bart guns are not a means to killing; as his sister cryptically comments in an early court scene, "it's something else about guns that gets him". He loves to collect and maintain guns, and he loves to shoot mobile objects with great dexterity, but the prospect of killing any living being veritably paralyses him. (Brilliant gestural detail: the way the teenage Bart anxiously clenches his fist, in the foreground of a composition, each time his pal shoots at a nearby animal.) In a pretty straightforward way, guns order Bart's life and channel his energies in a way that seems almost normal: they are what he loves, what he does best.

Annie has a different kind of object cathexis, one that looks a little more openly obsessive and dangerous. She clearly gets a transgressive kick out of firing guns (with only one match-head less dexterity than Bart). But the moment of murder is the crucible for her, too: she shoots to kill whenever fear overwhelms her, whenever she is seized hysterically by the threat of loss. What is she afraid of losing? Her life, her set-up, her shot at the big pay-off. And – more intensely and movingly as the film develops – her man.

It is important to say, before pop-Freudianism overtakes us too quickly, that for neither of these characters is gun craziness primarily a matter of libidinal release or phallic grandeur. Although, it is true, Bart does say that he and his beloved can't seem to ever split up, because they "we go together, Laurie, I don't know why – maybe like guns and ammunition go together". And Gun Crazy is, no doubt about it, a fantastically sexy film. "I'm yours, and I'm real": Cummins makes the final word in that line sound like the sweetest, dirtiest thing you've ever heard in your life. And the immortal scene – whose charge is now doubled for me by its precise placement in another hot and nervy classic, Jim McBride's remake of Breathless (1983) – where Annie sprawls on the bed horizontally in her dressing gown, casually threatens to leave Bart, and then commands him: "Let's finish it the way we started it – on the level".

A decade ago, I used to think of Gun Crazy as a film about the death-drive. A film about amour fou and what happens to it once it cuts free from all the typical supports of so-called normal society (such as the dreary nuclear family incarnated here around the figure of Bart's sister). A paean to lawlessness, and suicidal last runs, and a desire that burns around in the night until it is consumed by its own fire – if it is not, before that point, hunted down and eradicated by law-abiding representatives of the reality-principle (embodied in this tale by Bart's two boyhood chums, who only want a quiet town). More pop-Freud, of course, with a touch of normative lament or regret or nostalgia about it – the sort of sentiment that will fill many (most) subsequent lovers-on-the-run movies, from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Thieves Like Us (1974) to Thelma and Louise (1991).

Gun Crazy ends up in a spooky, nightmarish swamp. But its final, gun-firing tragedy happens so fast and furiously that it disappears without the usual requiem of pained, elegiac, moral reflection. Joseph H. Lewis' masterpiece does not seem to me, today, a reflective, funereal, troubled film at all. There is something far more transparent, straighter, on-the-level about it.

What genre is Gun Crazy? Like many great films, it is between genres, among genres, and of no genre. It effortlessly displaces itself from the film noir properly speaking, and that genre's gothic enigmas, ambiguous femmes fatales and labyrinthine narrative intrigues. It is not a thriller or a mystery or an action film or a crime film, nor any kind of ordinary drama or melodrama.

In a way, I think it asks to be taken more than anything as a love story, the story of a couple – even more strongly and eccentrically, as a story of marriage. Annie and Bart hardly even get close to a separation or even an argument in this film. It is not a tale of betrayal or deceit, the waning of a thrill or the ending of a dream. The amour fou between these two burns clear and pure for virtually the entire film, and certainly unto death. There is a wildly corny scene, at a turning point in the narrative after their biggest heist, in which Annie and Bart tear off (as they have agreed) in two separate cars in two different directions along the same road. But they are both compelled to slam on the brakes, and he wheels around, drives back, abandons his jalopy and piles into the driver's seat of her car. She holds and kisses him, then, as he speeds forward, pragmatic thoughts casting no dark shadows over his beaming face. Has there ever been a simpler, more affecting picture of joy and togetherness than this?

MORE Lewis: My Name is Julia Ross

© Adrian Martin December 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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