So many of the best movies are really quite sick, and so it is with Joseph H. Lewis’s 1950 crime-spree noir Gun Crazy, playing at the Museum of the Moving Image on November 20 and 21, part of the museum’s tribute to blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. John Dall, with the wholesome gleam of a freshly shucked ear of corn, plays Barton Tare, a small-town marksman who loves to shoot but who, after a rash childhood escapade involving a chick and a BB gun, refuses to kill any living thing. Fairground sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr — Peggy Cummins, almost radioactive with sexual allure and menace — has no such qualms, and a desire for the finer things in life burns inside her like a blowtorch. Bart falls under her spell and joins her on the carnival circuit, and shortly thereafter they break away on their own, get married, and set off on a joyful honeymoon road trip — though that carefree whirl of a montage is over before they, and we, know it. They’ve run out of money, and Annie Laurie uses her considerable erotic magnetism to convince Bart that just a holdup or two would solve all their problems. Her seduction technique makes perfect use of one silk stocking, a gossamer shadow of Eve’s serpent.
Annie Laurie is bad to the bone, and bad right from the start: Her smile is something between a pout and a smirk, and in Bart’s first encounter with her, during a performance, she points a pistol right at him and shoots. It’s a blank, but he startles, laughing. The movie’s shivery, subversive thrills lie in watching Bart fall deeper under her spell: In the early scenes, his cheeks practically glow with vigorous goodwill; by the film’s end — no matter that it’s in black-and-white — we can see that he’s been drained of all color, as if by a vampire’s kiss.
Gun Crazy is one of the greatest, most vital films noirs, in a league with Out of the Past and In a Lonely Place, though it’s more tawdry and feral than either. At the time of the film’s release, the script was credited to Trumbo’s front, Millard Kaufman (later one of the writers of the bold, unapologetically liberal Spencer Tracy drama Bad Day at Black Rock); it was co-written by MacKinlay Kantor, adapted from a 1940 story he’d written for the Saturday Evening Post. The dialogue is mostly straightforward pulp, some of it rather stiff, but it’s really just a skeleton for the picture’s quavering carnality (and a prelude to its surreal, unsettling misty-mountain reverie of an ending).
After the final holdup — a brutal inside job that they’ve spent months setting up, earning the trust of people they’ll betray without blinking — they attempt to separate for a time, believing that will make it harder for the cops to track them. Annie Laurie, her face that of a sale-table baby doll, too hard to be endearing, dashes away from Bart to take off in her own car, while he heads the other direction in his. But they cannot do without each other, not even for a penny’s worth of gas. They stop simultaneously, with a his-and-hers screech of tires, and reunite in an embrace so sensuous and animal that you almost want to turn away. Their futures are entwined forever. Even if it’s true, as Godard said, that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun, Gun Crazy has that mad, mind-blowing something extra. It’s the most trigger-happy of tragedies.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Playing November 20 and 21, Museum of the Moving Image