Gun Crazy (Lewis, 1950)

Context is–well, not everything–but it is important. If I had watched Gun Crazy (a.k.a. Deadly is the Female) a year ago…well, okay, I would not have watched it a year ago, but if I had, I doubt I would have gotten past the first ten minutes. That ten minutes, comprised of the trial of a juvenile, plays a bit like a fifties version of Reefer Madness with the evils of guns standing in for marijuana. Bart Tare is mad, but the bulk of the film develops, eventually into a noir film where he is mad about the girl: Annie Starr, a gun toting, femme fatale whose idea of living doesn’t include $40 a week. I suspect the MacKinlay Kantor work on which the screenplay is based is little more traditionally noirish and the psychological conflicts are played up by Dalton Trumbo (writing as Millard Kaufman due to being blacklisted). Here’s the thing, though…the conventions of the genre also dilute the preachiness of Trumbo’s moralizing. The blend ends up being, for this viewer anyway, a very satisfying combination rather than a bad marriage of competing visions. You got peanut butter in my chocolate…

Peggy Cummins and John Dall

If even the conflictedness of the male accomplice is somewhat conventional–the form in which he express it is decidely metaphysical with a socio-political twist. [One example would be the dialogue after Bart reads in the newspaper that two people Laruie shot in a hold up have died.] Even when the two lovers are fleeing in a typical, noir flight, the lines have symbolic overtones, such as when Laurie asked why they have tired too quickly and Bart opines that “it’s the altitude.” I’ve never been able to embrace environmental determinism, but Trumbo is one of those writers who is decidedly effective (in whatever genre) of getting you to emphasize who often decisions–even (especially?) bad ones–are always influenced by the context in which they are made and reminding you of how little influence we sometimes have over that context. The result is, while one doesn’t excuse Bart, one can still sympathize with him. There may be fewer viewers who sympathize with Annie, and on one level she can certainly be read in conventional terms as the corrupting influence on the conflicted but hopelessly, romantically, committed fall guy. Peggy Cummins give a terrific performance, though, and I do think Trumbo’s script allows her a measure of humanity not always afforded to those characters in his work who subordinate moral conscience to perceived necessity. Given the length of Trumbo’s blacklist experience, it might be relevant to point out that this film was relatively early in that span. (He appeared before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1947; Gun Crazy is dated 1950, the same year Trumbo went to jail for refusing to name names.)

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