Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Gun Crazy

Year of Release  1949
Country  USA
Length  86 min.
Director  Joseph H. Lewis
Screenwriters  MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo (adapted from Kantor’s newspaper story)
Cinematographer  Russell Harlan
Editor  Harry W. Gerstad
Cast  Peggy Cummins and John Dall

On a purely visceral level, there are few films as powerful, entertaining, or effectively streamlined as Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy.  Every plot point, every line of dialogue, and every shot has been sculpted and sharpened for maximum efficiency and gut-level impact.  Lewis and his creative team take a basic outlaws-on-the-lam story and turn it into what is essentially a live-action flipbook of the seediest pulp novel covers. 

Gun Crazy is smartly paced in the way that only old Hollywood movies are, with each plot point and character tic lingering on screen only for as long as it needs to.  There is no fat here, and though the supporting cast is nicely populated with memorable bit performances, the only figures of any real importance are the central couple of Barton Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). 

Stories of criminal couples on the run have been around as long as the cinema itself, but Gun Crazy distinguishes itself by avoiding any pretense of social responsibility and going straight for primal impact.  The romanticism of You Only Live Once (1937), They Live by Night (1949), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is nowhere in evidence here, replaced by a conflation of sexuality and violence so much in the forefront that it’s a miracle that a movie this raw was released in the late ‘40s (Barton and Annie meet during a shooting contest, where the lusty suggestiveness is so thick that it can hardly be called metaphorical).  Nor is there any pretension to cultural criticism, as in a latter film like Natural Born Killers (1994); Barton and Annie aren’t stand-ins for any idea so much as they are vessels for the audience’s most tawdry desires.

But while the lack of hypocrisy is appreciated, and the straight-to-the-point style of the filmmaking makes for tremendous entertainment, Gun Crazy may only be empty calories in the end.  There isn’t really any moral to the story beyond the token nod to “crime doesn’t pay,” and that idea isn’t terribly convincing in a movie where the criminal couple’s life is infinitely more glamorous and exciting than that of anyone else on screen.  Barton and Annie are even awarded the same dramatically fog-enshrouded death as Henry Fonda’s character in You Only Live Once, despite the fact that he was a wrongly accused man and they are unquestionably guilty.  It could also be argued that Gun Crazy is a bit sexist, with Annie using her charms to lure Barton into an amoral criminal underworld that a nice guy like him would’ve avoided if he hadn’t been tempted (the film’s working title was Deadly is the Female).  At any rate, Gun Crazy sacrifices morality for entertainment value.

Gun Crazy is a great film when viewed from a pure formal standpoint.  Action scenes like the climactic heist and car chase are enhanced by Russell Harlan’s documentary-style cinematography, which gives  you-are-there immediacy to each gun shot and quick turn of the car.  But the movie doesn’t leave you with anything to think about after it’s over, or any nuances to grasp on repeat viewings.  Gun Crazy is as enjoyable and exciting as just about any movie ever made, but the same things that make it thrilling prevent it from being anything more.

Gun Crazy fails the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  Another movie where guns play an important role, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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