aka: Deadly is the Female

 (Joseph H Lewis, USA, 1950) 86 minutes


Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Producers; Frank King, Maurice King
Screenplay: MacKinlay Kantor, Dalton Trumbo,
† from the story by MacKinlay Kantor
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editor: Harry Gerstad
Music: Victor Young
Peggy Cummins (Annie Laurie Starr)
John Dall (Barton Tare)
Berry Kroeger (Packett)
Morris Carnovsky (Judge Willoughby)
Anabel Shaw (Ruby Tare Flagler)
Harry Lewis (Deputy Clyde Boston)
Nedrick Young (Dave Allister)

Reviews and notes

2014 Maine

This exemplary film noir, from 1950, has a flamboyantly Freudian premise: Bart Tare, an orphaned boy, is obsessed with firearms. He feeds that obsession by burglarizing a store. An expert marksman, he returns from reform school and a stint in the Army to his home town, where he has nothing to do ó until he meets and falls for Laurie Starr, a carnival sharpshooter whose act he first upstages and then joins. They quit the troupe and marry, but they canít settle down; Laurie dreams of luxury and forces Bart to team up with her in a series of armed robberies, at which Bart proves all too skilled. The already-classic trope of lovers on the run, ŗ la Bonnie and Clyde, gets a stylish workout from the director Joseph H. Lewis. His sly and insinuating angles lend the power of violence and the threat of death a sexual charge. The gritty texture of the on-location filming in Southern California heightens the arch wonder of the coupleís criminal schemes, as in the movieís famous three-minute take, of a robbery filmed in real time from inside the getaway car. Itís a brilliant metaphor for confinement and isolation ó for the trap of love and money ó yet Lewis can hardly conceal his delight.
- Richard Brody, New Yorker.

Gun Crazy is for the most part so outstandlingly good, with John Dall and Peggy Cummings bot excelling themselves (not to mention Russell Harlan's camerawork), that one has to resist the temptation to overvalue or tidy away loose ends (along with Ado Kyrou and other French enthusiasts) under paeans of praise for its celebration of l'amour fou. Doomed couples, clinging to love while the world crumbles about them, were one of the mainstays or the noir genre as an innocent of either sex was lured irresistibly out of his/her depth.

Only rarely, admittedly, in films of the calibre of You Only Live Once, They Live by Night or Moonrise, was this involvement quite so overwhelmingly presented as here; but the film's soaring ambition is none the less hampered by a certain pulp aura hanging over the presentation of the heroine. It isn't so much the traditionally cheap and brassy sexuality (so beautifully realised by the shooting contest which turns into a firework display of desire) as the way in which audience expectations are upheld by all-too-obvious intimations of nastiness in her relationship with Packett, or in the nudging manner in which she is constantly seen to be itching to pull the trigger. The delicate balance of the relationship is upset, tending to turn Bart into a sacrificial lamb, while Annie's touching will to rediscover innocence ("I've never been much good", she confesses when he proposes marriage, "I want to be . . . I'll try") is reduced to mere lip-service that leaves one unprepared for the evidence to the contrary when, during the last robbery, she proves as unable as he to accept separation in the interests of safety.

There is also the problem of the prologue, with its expressionistic morceau d'anthologie as the young Bart panics after heaving a brick through a gunsmith's window one dark and stormy night, tripping and sending the gun splashing away across the rain-lashed street to land at the feet of a cop looming tall and sinister in his gleaming slicker. Suggesting an indefinable angst of traumatic depths, this prologue raises psychological questions which the film itself then proceeds largely to ignore.

One can, in the wake of Borde and Chaumeton (Panorama du Film Noir Americain), talk about a man trying to acquire virility through other means than killing people, being attracted to a bitch with a predilection for wearing pants, and finally killing her rather than risk the lives of his (male) boyhood friends. But since Annie is initially attracted by Bart's virility (which she flaunts in the face of Packett's impotence), and evidently remains satisfied by it in ways that have nothing to do with his prowess with guns (which he remains steadfastly reluctant to use), this Freudian rigmarole doesn't quite add up to more than a muddle.

Very much to the film's credit, on the other hand, is the way it overrides its own red herrings with a magnificently realised, and wholly convincing, tragedy in which two people, one good and one bad, head straight for destruction because neither is strong enough to deflect the other from his natural course. A key element here is the superbly assured grasp of tempo with which Lewis suggests the tensions between Annie's yearning for violent excitement and Bart's impulse toward routine obscurity.

In their robbery of the Hampton Savings and Loan Company (a stunning example of Lewis' predilection for location shooting and long takes), the camera remains a patient observer in the back seat for almost five minutes as they drive uncertainly through the town, worrying about whether they are on the right route, whether they will be able to find somewhere to park, then see a conveniently vacated space, and he goes inside to effect the hold-up while she waits at the wheel, sees a cop idly saunter to a halt by the door, engages him in flirtatious conversation until Bart hurries out, the alarm goes off, she clobbers the cop, Bart hops in, and they zoom off for the first cut in the entire sequence as the pursuit begins.

As with the second set-piece robbery (which reverses the tempo, using fragmentary scenes as they case the meat-packing plant, then an unbroken shot as they make their panicky getaway, tripping, dropping the money, etc.), these rhythmic variations of course serve as incitements to audience involvement. More than that, however, they are designed to form a system, in operation throughout the film, which discreetly privileges the three moments of stasis which punctuate the development of the relationship.

First, the crummy hotel room in which Annie persuades Bart that crime is the only solution; second, the elegant hotel room in which Bart finally faces the fact that he is being dragged into killing by a killer; third and last, the oasis of the swamp, cut off from the rest of the world by fog even when the darkness lifts, a last resting-place from which there can be no exit.

Robert Mundy (Cinema, Vol. 7, No. 1) has suggested that the tonal qualities of Gun Crazy, "white and stark as the couple run into the street from the bank wearing trenchcoats and sunglasses", must have influenced Godard. It could well be that Godard's more radical experiment in tempo, building A Bout de Souffle out of three distinct movements, quick-slow-quick, was inspired by the same source.
- Tom Milne, Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1980.

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