Gun Crazy (1949)

gun1Bart (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.

Some connections-

Joseph H Lewis also made the impressive noir The Big Combo and The Undercover Man.

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.

Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.