Bart (Russ Tamblyn) is first seen as a young man smashing a gun store window in order to steal a gun, and its then revealed that he has had an unhealthy fascination with guns ever since he was given a bb-rifle when a child (the reasoning that buying a child a bb gun is a good idea is uniquely American, I guess). Bart is caught during the theft and subsequently sent to reform school. Several years later when he returns home as a young man (at this point played by John Dall) fresh from a stint in the army, it’s clear he hasn’t grown out of his obsession with guns.
A trip to a carnival soon changes his life when he attends a demonstration by beautiful sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr and enters a shooting match against her – each becomes attracted by the other’s skill with guns; the chemistry between them is immediate, gunplay as foreplay in a very daring sequence. Soon after Bart joins the carnival to be with Laurie, the two run foul of the jealous carnival owner, Packett (Berry Kroeger), and they run away, soon falling into a life of crime robbing gas stations and banks in order to get the life of luxury that Annie craves. On the run from the law, their crimes escalate and it can only end one way once the FBI get involved.
Joseph H Lewis’ Gun Crazy feels a mixture of surprisingly modern (it could have been made yesterday, and probably has been when one considers Badlands, True Romance, Natural Born Killers etc), and wildly profane (I find the gun fetish displayed within the film quite abhorrent but I suppose across the pond individual mileage may differ). Both lovers seem as aroused by their gunplay as in each other, and the early scene where they meet and compete in a shooting contest has such brazenly sexual undertones that it makes me wonder how it got past censors in 1949 – I can only imagine they were side-tracked by the films stylised direction/photography and the pseudo-psychotherapy used as some vague explanation/justification of Bart’s actions.
The film features possibly the most quintessential femme fatale that I have ever seen; Bart’s lover Annie (Peggy Cummins) a beautiful blonde temptress who uses her wiles to coerce well-meaning (albeit gun-obsessed) Bart to criminality. After Annie declares that “I want things, a lot of things, big things,” she threatens Bart that “You better kiss me goodbye, Bart, because I won’t be here when you get back.” After Bart backs down, she huskily announces “next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours and I’m real,” the sexual heat that Annie oozes is almost tactile and Bart can forbid her nothing. Once Bart sees her and falls for her, there’s no escape for him, nor for her either, funnily enough. If they had never met they may have had fairly ordinary lives but together triggered a fetish-driven plunge into violent crime and grim ends. Very noir.
John Dall, so memorable as the ice-cold killer in Hitchcock’s Rope before making Gun Crazy, would later appear in Spartacus but all told was in just eight films before dying in 1971 at the age of just 51. I thought Dall was brilliant in Gun Crazy but while both Rope and Gun Crazy are quite highly respected now, they failed at the box-office at the time, likely explaining his limited film career. Irish actress Peggy Cummins passed in 2017 at the grand age of 92; of her 29 film roles, nothing seems to have been like her role here as hot-tempered Annie, and other than Gun Crazy, her most notable appearance is probably in the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon – she seems to have retired from acting in the mid-sixties.