Gun Crazy

USA 1949, 87 mins
Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Gun Crazy’s inspired, lurid title hurtles onto the screen with the tabloid pizzazz of a headline. Just to complicate matters, however, Gun Crazy was originally released by United Artists in January 1950 as Deadly Is the Female, then re-released six months later under the title of the source material, MacKinlay Kantor’s Saturday Evening Post short story. If the different titles problematised the question of whether Bart or his sharp-shooting inamorata, Laurie, owned the narrative and was responsible for its violence, the ill-advised attempt to avoid exploitational overtones with poetic inversion failed to fool a discerning Variety: ‘Hiding behind the awkward title… is a story of desperate young love and crime.’ In any case, the film was well received by a savvy local and trade press, the sharp critic in the Los Angeles Times impressed that ‘a crime picture can come along at this late date and top nearly all that have preceded it… hell on wheels… use of the medium in its sharpest, simplest sense.’

Where a sophisticated eye saw iconographic purity, the more jaded view of national reviewers was dismissive – ‘humdrum pulp fiction’. Although inevitably hurt by its uncertain release, it is doubtful whether the film could have done well in any case. What did it have going for it? No powerful imperialist studio logo roared a promise of prestige or glamour at the audience. MGM reportedly wanted to buy the film and lend its marketing clout, but a condition was the removal of the King Brothers’ producers credit, in studio eyes synonymous with cheapjack product. The feisty Kings – the ‘B-picture Kings’, Frank, Morris and Hymie – predictably refused. Gun Crazy was doomed to become one of the great cult movies of American film history, the favourite B-movie of everybody-in-the-know. But what everybody would not know is that the film was conceived and released as a modest A-level production. The romantic myth surrounding the film has it the achievement of an auteur inspired by shoestring limitations to create the very epitome of B-film noir. Ironically, the truth is that the enterprising Kings – Monogram Studio masters of the cheapie and quickie, of formula efforts with no stars and lean budgets – were attempting to upgrade with Gun Crazy, and its proposed $500,000 budget and 30-day schedule, to come in at the floor of the A-level production, the so-called ‘nervous A’. Yet the film must have screamed ‘B-movie!’ at its original audiences, as it has at their successors.

One can see why. Despite aiming high (for them), the Kings were inevitably to live down to their reputation somewhat in mounting the production. The economising would be obvious in the small scale, the few crowd scenes, the stock footage. To helm the project they had originally considered art director Gordon Wiles, whom they had direct The Gangster the previous year, but in the end they brought in Joseph H. Lewis, a veteran of successful B-movie and, more recently, ‘nervous A’ studio assignments. But the crucial factor was the casting. The Kings had originally gone after both Gregory Peck and Dana Andrews for Bart, and later there was talk of pairing the likes of Farley Granger and Susan Hayward to play the outlaw couple. However, in the eyes of Hollywood’s elite, lowbrow Monogram and the proletarian Kings were a standing joke, sources of the worst pictures on the market. Ultimately, they were forced to go with minor stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins, both a B-minus in name voltage, casting which would result in full-blooded and sensitive performances, but which lacked iconographic oomph.

In short, Gun Crazy both benefited and suffered from changes in the industrial landscape, as did its director. As Paul Kerr has argued, economic developments in Hollywood such as the break-up of block booking attendant on the Supreme Court anti-trust rulings in 1946-8, and the consequent divestiture of the studios’ exhibition arm, boosted the efforts of enterprising independents like the Kings, and were critical factors in shaping the contours of film noir and the careers of B-movie directors such as Lewis. A system influx was opening up new directions for creative work, as evidenced by the limited but real advance in resources for a minuscule B-movie such as Columbia’s My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). A 65-minute thriller with Nina Foch as the put-upon heroine, this modest picture was recognised as a sleeper by studio head Harry Cohn while it was in production, and given more shooting time, a preview and an independent release. It was an advance for director Lewis, whose career so far had consisted of some two dozen quickies at various studios.

But it was Gun Crazy that was to provide Lewis’s only real breakthrough: a tight, evocative script, the support of independent-minded street-fighter producers, performances by two gifted, offbeat players, censors’ interventions on behalf of a pushy Zeitgeist – all coming together with his stylish, inventive direction in a remarkable synergy. The result was a bona-fide American masterpiece, pint-sized though it may be, one of Hollywood’s transcendent works, an indispensable portrait of a transitional moment and ethos, a world of small-time characters and big-time aspirations, brought to life in a genuine desert island movie (if the ship is sinking…). Starting in the late 1960s, auteur critics made valiant efforts to attribute the authorship of Gun Crazy to Lewis. In vain. A hodgepodge of a filmography absolutely resists reduction to any consistency, and provides vivid evidence of how dependent Lewis always was on collaborators. Although there are a number of interesting films, especially the distinguished, Philip Yordan-scripted, upper-echelon noir, The Big Combo (1955), as an auteur Lewis is essentially a stylist without a theme, and it is Gun Crazy that provides his body of work with its centre of gravity.

But it was not so much auteurism that drew the film into the spotlight in the ’60s as the spectacular success of what some thought to be a direct descendant, the Arthur Penn-directed Bonnie and Clyde. Perhaps it was the visual link of the beret that both heroines sport, after the most famous photograph of the original Bonnie, but many critics invoked Gun Crazy, and in some cases preferred it. Over the years Gun Crazy has received a goodly share of attention for its pivotal place in the distinguished company of the fugitive-couple narrative cycle. Where Fritz Lang’s depression-era You Only Live Once (1937) and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) see their subjects as innocent victims, the King Brothers were clearly more interested in the greater commercial potential gained by centring the romantic narrative on rebellious characters who actively choose to be criminals, as is suggested by press stories released during shooting which focused on Cummins as a ‘female Dillinger’. And it is of course this radical shift in moral weight that gives the film its hard edge, and thereafter informs Bonnie and Clyde and its own offspring, Badlands, as well as the latter-day post-modern efforts, True Romance and Natural Born Killers.
Extracted from Gun Crazy by Jim Kitses (BFI Film Classics, 1996)Reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. ©Jim Kitses

Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
©: Pioneer Pictures Corporation
A King Bros. production
Presented by: United Artists
Produced by: Maurice King, Frank King
Production Manager: Allen K. Wood
Assistant to the Producers: Arthur Gardner
Assistant Director: Frank S. Heath
Script Continuity by: Jack Herzberg
Screenplay by: MacKinlay Kantor, Millard Kaufman
From the Saturday Evening Post story by: MacKinlay Kantor
Director of Photography: Russell Harlan
Editor: Harry Gerstad
Production Designed by: Gordon Wiles
Set Decorator: Raymond Boltz Jr
Miss Cummins’ Wardrobe by: Norma
Music by: Victor Young
Song ‘Mad about You’ Music by: Victor Young
Song ‘Mad about You’ Lyrics by: Ned Washington
Orchestrations by: Leo Shuken, Sidney Cutner
Music Editor: Stuart Frye
Sound Engineer: Tom Lambert
Technical Adviser: Herman King
Dialogue Coach: Madeleine Robinson

Screenplay by: Dalton Trumbo
Camera Operator: Fleet Southcott
Grip: Harry Lewis
Gaffer: Lloyd L. Garnell
Stills: Ed Jones
Make-up: Charles Huber
Hairstyles: Carla Hadley

Peggy Cummins (Annie Laurie Starr)
John Dall (Bart Tare)
Berry Kroeger (Packet)
Morris Carnovsky (Judge Willoughby)
Anabel Shaw (Ruby Tare)
Harry Lewis (Sheriff Clyde Boston)
Nedrick Young (Dave Allister)
Rusty Tamblyn (Bart Tare aged 14)

Trevor Bardette (Sheriff Boston)
Mickey Little (Bart Tare aged 7)
Paul Frison (Clyde Boston aged 14)
David Bair (Dave Allister aged 14)
Virginia Farmer (Miss Wynn)
Stanley Prager (‘Bluey-Bluey’, the clown)
Don Beddoe (Cadillac driver)
Robert Osterloh (Hampton policeman)
Harry Hayden (Mr Mallenberg)
Anne O’Neal (Miss Sifert)
Ray Teal (California border inspector)
Shimen Ruskin (guess your weight man)
Frances Irwin (Danceland singer)

USA 1949©
87 mins

Introduced by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive curator (Wed 12 June only)

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