The union of sex and violence has been a long standing theme in film. While the American obsession with guns has been well documented, few have embraced the almost sinful allure of guns like Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy. The characters in Gun Crazy not only enjoy shooting, but have a weird obsession with guns in general.
From a very young age Barton Tare (John Dall), known as Bart to friends, has always been drawn to guns. The compulsion is so strong that as a child he attempted, unsuccessfully mind you, to steal a gun from a local shop. As a result of his actions, Bart was sent off to reform school before eventually spending time in the military. Years later Bart returns home a man with a new outlook on life. His love of guns is still present, in fact he has developed into quite the marksman, but he no longer feels the need to resort to criminal activities. That of course all changes when he meets the beautiful, and equally talented with a pistol, Annie Laurie Star (Peggy Cummins). A sharp-shooting performer in a traveling carnival, Annie is taken by Bart’s skills during a shooting contest that Annie rarely loses.
While Annie’s love of guns is similar to Bart’s, she will not hesitate to use them on another human being if required. This is a direct contrast to Bart who freezes up in fear at the mere thought of killing any living creature. Despite being warned by a fellow carnival performer that Annie “ain’t the type that makes a happy home,” Bart falls madly in love with her and the two quickly wed and begin a whirlwind romance. Unfortunately for the couple, their happy union seems to hit a wall when money runs low. This does not sit well with Annie who is a woman that expects her man give her the world, even if that means breaking the law to do it.
Bart is uneasy with the idea of robbing others at gunpoint as someone may accidentally get hurt. However, he cannot resist the sensual allure that Annie has over him. Soon the couple embarks on a cross country crime spree that spirals out of control and sends them down a dangerous path. As the law closes in on them, Bart is forced to question how much he is truly willing to sacrifice for Annie.
Gun Crazy is a noir film that firmly has its feet planted in the B-movie world. Joseph H. Lewis takes great pleasure in exploiting the sensual connection that Bart and Annie have in relation to their love of guns. Annie in particular is viewed as the femme fatale whose sexuality has an intoxicating power over Bart. Lewis even pushes the boundaries, as far as he could in the 1950s, in regards to how both violence and sexuality are depicted on screen. Gun Crazy clearly laid the ground work for similar genre films that would come later on, most notably Bonnie & Clyde and Natural Born Killers, to take this exploration even further.
Despite its pulpy tone, or maybe because of it, there is something oddly appealing about the film. Though Lewis only provides surface explanations for the characters’ motivations, he still manages to make them real people. Whenever the question is raised about Annie’s true intentions, Lewis quickly reminds the audience that Bart and Annie are kindred spirits. Individually both suffer from severe trauma that can be pointed back to a key incident in their life involving a gun. Annie in particular is a compelling character because guns are both the cause and solutions to many of her problems. It is a vicious cycle that she shows no signs of breaking. This is probably one of the reasons why they are so accepting of each others’ flaws.
The way Lewis films many of the scenes allows the audience to feel like a fly on the wall during the couples exploits. In several of the car scenes, he firmly plants the camera at the back of the car to give the illusion that the audience is in the backseat of the getaway car. The tension in the film remains high thanks to the way Lewis selectively uses his close up shots. A perfect example of this can be found early on when Annie’s jealous carnival boss, Packett (Berry Kroeger), is upset that Annie has rejected his romantic advances in favour of Bart. In a rage he tries to throw a mirror at Bart, but is stunned when Bart shoots out the mirror while still in Packett’s hands. At that moment no words need to be said, Lewis merely shows a seething Packett through the reflection of the shattered mirror. It is a brilliant moment that sets the stage for how far Bart will go for love.
At its heart Gun Crazy is a love story, albeit an odd one, about two unique souls destined to be together. It is a film that is not afraid to embrace, and exploit, the fascination that Americans have with guns. The power and riches that having a gun can provide is just as alluring as the men and women who carry them. Gun Crazy is far from a politically correct film, but it does offer a wonderfully uncompromising view of the world Bart and Annie exist in. Though it does not get the same acclaim as many of the films it has clearly influenced, Gun Crazy is a film whose love story and social commentary, like its characters, always hits the mark.