Midnight Screening: Gun Crazy

I decided to write a regular Midnight Screening for Friday this week anyway, because I couldn’t resist the opportunity to immediately discuss Gun Crazy…

You are excused for thinking Gun Crazy was released in pre-Hays Code 1932, post-Hays Code 1968, or in Europe in 1950, the actual year of the film’s release. Sure, Gun Crazy isn’t brutally violent or pornographically sexual or anything. Director Joseph H. Lewis, an auteur among B-movie directors, relies on suggestion and implication more than overt expression, but all of this unstated terror and innuendo only makes the film naughtier and nastier. None of it hides the essential truth, revealed right in the film’s opening act when the main character’s older sister informs a judge that “something else about guns gets him, not killing”, that Gun Crazy is dripping with sexual metaphors and an indifferently Freudian, but nonetheless sharp and incisive, commentary on how violence and sexual gratification are intimately linked in modern American culture. Not exactly fair game for Hollywood in 1950, but then, that is the privilege of motion pictures produced on the cheap: they don’t have to appeal to a majority of Americans, and they can fly under the radar of “respect” by the brain and the heart and drive right into the gut.

When Bart Tate (John Dall) grows up and his infatuation with shooting refuses to subside, a chance meeting with Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) – who is similarly infatuated with the penetrating aspect of gunplay – the two run off on a crime spree together. It is as simple as one, two, three, but the screenplay (predominantly by Donald Trumbo, perpetual victim of the HUAC committee for the decade to follow) favors the sensuous lust of the characters with blunt efficiency and a tactile sense of sweaty impact. Lewis and Trumbo, with heavy assists from the deceptively innocent and craving Dall and the theatrical stone-wall of Cummins, find themselves in the company of two people who genuinely seem to want to lay into one another, love or not. But their manner of intercourse is not verbal nor in bed, but mechanical, with guns as an extension of their hands venturing into naughty places. For them, the mechanical becomes physical.

The film is replete and thick with nervous, sinister visual metaphors for intercourse, such as the way in which both lovers on the run dive into a pair of hamburgers with carnal infatuation. Guns obviously play heavily, with the latitudinal (and often longitudinal) objects jutting out sideways, forwards, backwards, up, and down into the frame with gravid energy throughout the piece. They feel like rape.

And Lewis plays with perspective like his own perverse plaything, favoring a rampant deep focus with foreground and background contrast cutting into one another and seeding discomfort; we are always aware that we can never solely focus on one portion of the frame, for the mise en scene is almost always about the motion and penetration between characters and objects in different areas of the frame. Indeed, the depth of the frame itself serves the moral architecture of the film, jutting into the background and foreground and adopting an almost phallic persona on its own regardless of what is being depicted in the frame. Visually, Gun Crazy is positively drunk with prowling, sensational sexuality, marking the film as, in essence, the story of two people getting off until they kill themselves, perpetually engaging in auto-erotic asphyxia, only to learn they like it more together.

The film isn’t the most morally radical piece; Starr is something of a temptress, beckoning Tate to the thrill of the kill, coaxing him to literally penetrate human flesh with his bullets in the way that she does (into adult life, he still doesn’t want to actually hurt anyone with the guns). Not that the film paints her as a villain; neither figure is criticized at all per-se, and the screenplay and direction both emphasize a reportorial tactility and matter-of-factness that stares on at the two leads in doubt but not derision. The material is, at a scripting level, unnecessarily Freudian in its everyday emphasis on the “female mind” and the insatiable need of women for phallic objects to engage in the masculine act of penetration. Everyone involved plays the material with such conviction though, and the casual demeanor of the film avoids over-emphasizing Starr as a woman in need of a penis so much as it tackles Tate for his learning to use his (and learning that one cannot play with guns without being drawn into killing with them). The film never depicts either character, but least of all Starr, as a vile human being. They are simply bodies struggling to survive amidst the toxic cloud of dementia they have dropped themselves into.

Largely, in fact, Gun Cazy has no time for moralizing at all; it is of the Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann school of ruthless, frightening efficiency, and in this respect, it is most different from its spiritual successor, the far more renowned Bonnie and Clyde. Both films are masterpieces for their own reasons, but Gun Crazy is certainly the more brutal on a minute-by-minute basis (Bonnie and Clyde suffers, as films released since its time have been wont to, from its slightly belabored run-time). Gun Crazy is less interested in making a statement about the myth of the characters than in depicting a furious and uncontained world out to end their lives.

When the finale comes around, and Tate and Starr escape the police through an unforgiving swampland, a literal and jungle-like manifestation of their life running through the outskirts of moral society, they stop and breathe. They are, more than anything, tired, and Lewis is less invested in making a statement about their tire than in evoking the sensation of tiredness as immediately as humanly possible. It is not simply a weariness though. They sit and breathe, their faces slumped right on top of each other in a sort of matrimonial affection, and their exasperated heaves and moans of pain take on a sexual malformation; they are pangs of sweat and menacingly human love, of animalistic carnal intercourse. They keep running, keep stopping, and keep breathing.

Eventually, they give in and lay down, with Lewis’ camera jutting into them in close up, laying next to one another as if post-coitus on a bed of nature. The wonderful Russell Harlan (probably the biggest name in the crew at the time of production, and his name would only grow still) shoots them with harsh chiaroscuro to emphasize their scars, their rough feral urges of love and togetherness, and their intimacy, which here is both affectionate and a trap (the binding of their faces overcomes the frame and leaves no room for anything else, and they become trapped in the camera). Having finally gotten what they wanted, in a manner of speaking, the world malforms around them until we are witnessing not a real place but a psychological, abstract mist and fog which odes to Dreyer and Tourneur. The film becomes an out-and-out impressionist horror film. Gun Crazy, in these closing moments, is as gorgeous and incisive as any film noir has ever been, and arguably as shocking.

Score: 10/10


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