One of the most artistically ambitious productions from the golden age of B-movies was Joseph H. Lewis’ pulpy thriller, which borrowed heavily from the Bonnie and Clyde story while offering a production style that transcended its budgetary limitations.
When newly discharged soldier Bart Tarre (John Dall) catches the attention of carnival sharp shooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), their attraction is instant and combustible. He briefly joins her in the carnival, but are forced to leave when Annie spurns the advances of the alcoholic carnival manager. At her suggestion, they use their gun skills to embark on a crime spree, but the money they gain from robbing stores and gas stations barely keeps them afloat. They graduate to more daring heists, robbing a bank in broad daylight and later engineering a complex payroll heist at a meatpacking plant. But, of course, crime does not pay and the gun-toting lovers eventually find themselves on a final and fatal chase from the law.
Shot in 30 days on a $400,000 budget, Gun Crazy offers some remarkably sophisticated sequences – most notably the bank robbery segment that was captured in a single unbroken take – that places it far beyond the mostly quotidian approach taken by B-level filmmakers of that era. Cinematographer Russell Harlan gives the film a rich visual appeal, with a specialty in tight close-ups that reflect the lead characters’ rapidly changing emotions, and Lewis is not afraid to employ unusual camera angles and imaginative sound editing to highlight the film’s tensions.
In a late-life interview, Lewis claimed that he brought out the best in the stars through a casually crude suggestion: “I told John, ‘Your cock’s never been so hard,’ and I told Peggy, ‘You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.’ That’s exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions.” If this is a correct memory, the ploy worked: Dall, a normally stolid actor, gives a rich riot of emotions while Cummins is the femme fatale from hell, her evil carefully concealed behind porcelain-fine features.
Sadly, Gun Crazy is far from perfect: a lengthy prologue detailing Bart’s teenage delinquency and subsequent punishment feels like a corny and clunky educational film shot by another company, and too often in the story Bart and Annie stop to express their inner feelings in clunky displays of verbosity. But overlooking these errors, Gun Crazy emerges as a satisfying adrenalin rush through noir territory.