Film and Television Features

Gun Crazy (1950)

Never mind the HUAC, Dalton Trumbo made some of his best films while being blacklisted. His recent biopic may have some inaccuracies and composite characters, but what it gets right is the depiction of that long period when he made ends meet writing low-budget movies for the King Brothers, either using false names or by having fellow writers fronting for him. This stratagem made fine movies like Gun Crazy possible. Its script was fronted by Millard Kaufman, who shared the spurious writing credit with MacKinlay Kantor, whose original story first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Now Kantor, a highly-regarded novelist, never wrote screenplays; he only allowed the use of his name on this occasion to help Trumbo, never receiving a red cent for his good deed, his salary going to the blacklisted writer, who was about to serve eleven months in a federal prison. Therefore, the film's structure, character development, and dialogue belong sorely to Trumbo.

Kantor and Trumbo were opposites. While Kantor's stories focused on men at war and veterans, Trumbo was a staunch pacifist, yet both men's sensitivities were suitably matched on Gun Crazy. The film is a perfect example of the film noir genre, with a conflicted main character, a femme fatale, some undisguised eroticism, and a jaundiced view of human nature. Thematically, Trumbo recognises that Kantor's key issue is America's obsession with firearms, and instead of eschewing it for the sake of violence and cheap thrills as any mediocre writer would do, he latches on to it and fleshes it out. This was actually known terrain for Trumbo, whose first novel, 1938's Johnny Got His Gun, dealt with the human cost of war, his prose condemning the guns-and-glory fever hidden in every call to arms.

Is there a connection between guns and sex? The film keeps you guessing from the start. Bart Tate's (John Dall) obsession with guns verges on fetishism, leading him to burglary. After four years in reform school and a stint in the Army, Bart seems to have found his bearings. Out with old friends, he meets Laurie Star (Peggy Cummins), a beautiful carnival sharp-shooter. Laurie's skills and looks have an instant magnetic pull on Bart, who takes on a marksmanship challenge at the end of her show. During the contest, there is an intense physical awareness of each other. Captivated by her, Bart accepts without hesitation a job offer from the carnival's owner, unaware of Laurie's relationship with him. Laurie has no qualms about leading both men on, but the love triangle still comes to a head. Laurie and Bart lose their jobs and take to the street.

"I told you I was no good," Laurie tells Bart at some point in the story, when she relaxes enough around him to throw her cards on the table. By then, she knows that her hold on Bart is strong. She has become his new obsession, and he's willing to do anything to get her to stay with him. Though Bart is basically a non-violent man, he willingly becomes her partner in crime. They start with small hold ups, but their crime spree escalates to bank jobs, which puts them in the most-wanted list. Bart abhors violence but Laurie is strangely aroused by it, the thrills and danger cementing her attraction to him. She has killed before and has no concerns about killing again. During their robbery of a payroll office, the frightful psychopath within her is revealed. When the police finally catch up with them and get them surrounded in the wilderness, Bart will find himself confronting her savagery.

Director Joseph H. Lewis never made the A-list of directors, but he had the skills to become one. Though most of his movies were westerns, he's better known for Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, which are the epitome of the noir genre. He started his career in films as an editor, which explains his superb sense of pace and dynamic transitions between scenes. His most famous scene, however, has no cuts. It consists of a long take where the camera has been placed over the backseat of a stolen car. We follow Bart and Laurie, in cowboy getups, as they ride into a small town, look for the bank, park by its entrance, and step out. The mundane scene suddenly gains tension: Laurie distracts the guard with her charms while Bart robs the bank. When he bolts out with the money, she strikes the guard, then they dash inside the car and speed off.

Another exceptional element of Lewis' style is his handling of actors. Trumbo's script gave him some layers of context that inform the acting choices. The core of Bart and Laurie's relationship is sex, and Lewis didn't tone it down in fear of sensors. It wasn't exploited either. Rather, the strong sexual attraction is only the first stage of the doomed relationship, whose dynamics keep changing over the span of the movie.

Over the years, Gun Crazy has gone from cult film to genuine classic. I'm sure none of its makers thought they were making a great work of art, considering this was an age when the life of a film ended with its theatrical showing. One thing evident is that Trumbo never did hack work; the quality of his writing is there in every scene and line of dialogue, even if his name isn't credited. It would be decades before the true authorship of its script would be revealed, just a few years before the film was set for inclusion in the National Film Registry. If there's a lesson to be learned here is that a good film, properly preserved, will still find sympathetic audiences today. People don't have to know the full story behind Gun Crazy to appreciate it.