“Gun Crazy” hits film noir bull’s eye
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
British actress Peggy Cummins stars as Annie Laurie Starr and John Dall as Bart Tare.
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“GUN CRAZY: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1950; Not Rated, contains violence, mature themes
Best extra: Commentary by Author/Film Noir Specialist Glenn Erickson
EVERYTHING to love about film noir can be found in “Gun Crazy,” the 1950 crime-spree caper from director Joseph H. Lewis starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins.
It is the forerunner to Oscar-winner “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, with a tighter, more focused script. Instead of blood drenched shoot-outs, Lewis forces his audience into an unlikely intimacy with sharpshooters Bart Tare (Dall) and Laurie Starr (Cummins). Dialogue is unusually quiet, sometimes whispered. In opening scenes showing Bart as a gun-obsessed tween played by Russ Tamblyn, credited as Rusty Tamblyn, he barely speaks. Reactions are conveyed by wide, anguished eyes.
Bart’s attraction to guns is shown in the opening scene, when, he breaks into a pawnshop to steal a handgun and ammunition. He’s quickly apprehended and, when we next see him, Bart is in court, where his sister, teacher and friends testify on his behalf. The consensus is Bart is obsessed with guns, but, after a traumatic barnyard incident, will not shoot a living creature. Even so, the judge sends the boy to reform school.
Years later, Bart meets up with his old pals, now a journalist and a cop. At loose ends, he takes in a carnival where he meets gorgeous “cowgirl” trick shooter, Laurie. After an demonstration of skills, their attraction is immediate and intense. Bart joins the sideshow to be close to her. Laurie soon persuades him to leave with her and begin a life of crime. Bart goes along after she promises no one will get hurt, but he soon learns she won’t be able to keep that deal.
Dall (“Rope,” “Spartacus”) and Cummins (“Curse of the Demon”) create memorable characters. She’s the femme fatale who, when backed into a corner, will do anything to protect herself. She likes killing. Dall’s Bart walks a tightrope; obsessed with guns and this woman. He despairs of their life of crime, a nightmare he can’t leave. And even when planned, Laurie finds she can’t leave Bart. They can turn dialogue like “We go together like guns and ammunition” into an observation. We might laugh, but there’s no doubt they believe it.
Commentary by Author/Film Noir Specialist Glenn Erickson is loaded with information about the director, writers and actors. Based on a short story by MacKinlay Kantor published in The Saturday Evening Post, the script was written by Dalton Trumbo under the name Millard Kaufman, whose work includes “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “Raintree County.”
While “Gun Crazy” escaped much of the Hays Code’s moral restrictions, Erickson says many thought it was “a primer for juvenile delinquency, a how-to movie about crime.” Bart and Laurie plan and execute their robberies; we see how their tactics derail. Violence can’t be avoided.
“Gun Crazy’s” picture is nearly reference quality. Technicians scanned the original negative at 2K for the 1080p remaster (1.34:1 ratio). Lighting choices are cleaner and bolder, with mid-tone grays solid and consistent; film grain is light and steady. It’s not only one of the best noir films, it’s one of the best remasters of the Warner Archive Collection.
Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Great Race”) show us a world of sharp angles, with extreme black and white highlights. Set-ups in rooms and cars are claustrophobic, reinforcing the sense of entrapment.
Harlan worked only with natural light in some scenes, particularly the long shot used in the couple’s bank heist. Lewis tossed the scripted scene based on a robbery only five paragraphs long in the original story. They mounted a camera inside the car placing the audience in a backseat POV. Bart and Laurie wear their Wild West outfits, heightening the theatricality. Bart says witnesses will only remember the outfits, but when Laurie meets a cop outside the bank, she’s able to convince him she’s still with a circus, arriving ahead of the troupe.
Their final heist is the payroll at the Armor Meat Packing Plant, the same company now owned by Smithfield Foods that makes hotdogs today. Companies love product placement, but probably wouldn’t support “Gun Crazy” today, Erickson says. “Besides implying that wanted criminals could get jobs driving their trucks and working in their front office, lawyers would object to the script on issues of company image.”
Again, WAC has created a fine clean-up. The UCLA Film and Television Archive removed clicks and static, restoring the original mono soundtrack into DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Dialogue is clear, and perfectly balanced with effects and score by Victor Young (1956 “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Quiet Man,” “Shane”).
Commentary by Glenn Erickson, writer for DVD Savant, is well worth your time; he does not waste a single minute as he provides a history of the film and old Hollywood.
WAC also includes “Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light,” the 2006 documentary by Director Gary Leva. Leva also produced and directed “Fog City Mavericks,” on San Francisco Bay area filmmakers such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Clint Eastwood; “Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick,” and “One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper.”
The film noir bonus feature has been included on other releases, but bears repeat viewing for newcomers and fans. It details the history of film noir and its roots in German Expressionism, covering actors, directors, cinematography and music. “Gun Crazy” is one of the highlights.
- Kay Reynolds