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John Dall

Gun Crazy

[Originally published in the National Society of Film Critics anthology The B List]

John Dall and Peggy Cummins

If you had to select a single film to justify the present enthusiasm for film noir and define its allure, few movies could compete with Gun Crazy. The same goes for celebrating the potential of B-movies to achieve grade-A flair, excitement, and artistic intelligence. The picture taps brazenly into a sexual, almost feral energy that makes it unique, even in a school of film known for perverse psychology and smoldering subtexts. And it achieves its ends on an observably limited budget, via two strategies that ought to clash but instead invigorate each other: the bold stylization of expressionistic, verging-on-minimalist settings, and the camera’s embrace of the real world in adventurous, sustained takes that approach documentary realism … except that the keynote of documentaries is rarely frenzy.

The premise is elemental. Bart Tare, an orphaned boy in a small American town, has an obsession with guns—owning them, touching them, and especially shooting them with proficiency, which makes him “feel awful good inside, like I’m somebody.” Following several years in reform school and four more in the Army, Bart the man (John Dall) comes home an earnestly pleasant young fellow, albeit with his obsession intact. When he crosses paths with Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a carnival trick-shooter who happens to be, in the words of her spieler boss, “soooo appealing, soooo dangerous, soooo lovely to look at,” no power on earth could keep them out of each other’s arms. What Bart doesn’t know till much later is that Laurie once killed a man (Gun Crazy initially was released under the title Deadly Is the Female), and before long she has persuaded him to join her in a cross-country crime spree that also plays like an extended honeymoon.

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