Gun Crazy (also known as Deadly Is The Female) is a low-budget film noir that could have ended up as just
another simple, rushed together affair that relied on a memorable title and a suggestive poster to lure audiences into the seats and would be quickly forgotten.
Fortunately, thanks to the confident and stylish direction of Joseph H. Lewis, along with the performances by his two leads, Gun Crazy has ended up as one of the best low-budget film noirs ever and has endured as a classic film that continues to hold up.
John Dall plays Bart Tate who has been obsessed with guns since an early age. However, his passion for firearms ends with the weapon itself and he has no desire to ever turn the gun barrel to any living thing.
He learns of the repercussions of this in a poignant moment in his youth after killing a young chick in the beginning of the film. It’s a wonderful scene and it really sets up that this movie is going to offer up something special.
After leaving reform school Tate meets Annie Laurie Starr played by Peggy Cummins. Laurie is a sideshow sharpshooter and is as expert with a gun as Tate is.
Their first meeting results in another excellent scene of them demonstrating their skills with guns in a competition. It’s tense, suspenseful and beautifully executed. We can see immediately these two are kindred spirits.
Tate joins the carnival, but soon he and Laurie leave together, get married and try to make a future for themselves. After the honeymoon period is over Laurie reveals her dreams and desires of what she wants out of life, and it’s unlikely it can ever happen by Tate getting an honest low-paying job. So, she gives him the ultimatum of the pair using their gun talents for a life of crime or she will leave him. Guess which one Tate agrees to?
Gun Crazy is an excellent film. You really like Tate from first meeting him as a young boy. You believe he’s a good person, but once he makes that fateful decision to be with Laurie under her conditions you know this will rule out any happy ending for the two of them.
Dall conveys Tate’s reluctance of going along with this plan the whole time, but crumbles when he looks in the eyes of Laurie who he just wants to be with no matter what. However much he tries to plan their criminal activities and tries to make sure nothing terrible will happen – it’s clear Tate is not meant for this way of life.
The decision to use their guns for crime will force Tate to constantly face the risk of having to shoot another person at any time and go against his own beliefs of taking a life. There’s no way of getting around that.
Cummins looks gorgeous wearing a beret and holding a pistol. Laurie is strong, stubborn and greedy, but she also has moments of vulnerability and sincerity.
Annie is not a typical ‘femme fatale’ in a noir film. She’s not completely coldblooded and uncaring. She does actually love Tate and genuinely wants to be with him. It’s just her desire for money gets in the way and it’s something she can’t help. Cummins is very good in the role and creates an extremely rich female noir character.
The direction by Lewis is the third star of the film. Lewis stages scenes in a simplistic way, but uses very unique shots and methods to tell this story.
I was struck by the unusual camera angles the actors are photographed from under the steering wheel in a getaway sequence. A young Tate witnessing a gun being fired at a mountain lion, we don’t see his face but the camera stays on his hands that clench into fists at every sound of a gunshot.
On the run in the woods the foreground of the shot filled with branches whizzing past the camera and the actors sporadically appearing through the foliage. It all gives the film a realistic feel that not a lot of productions at the time have. At one point Tate and Cummins are barreling down the street and Cummins slips and it really look like she takes a hard fall. I didn’t think that look rehearsed at all.
The most famous scene from Gun Crazy is the one-take bank robbery. The camera sits in the back seat while we watch as Tate and Laurie drive into a small town, find a bank, Tate goes in, Laurie distracts a policeman, Tate comes back out with the money and they speed away.
It’s a very economical way to show the robbery. But it’s also very unique and just as thrilling and tense sequence as if we got to get out of that car and followed Tate into the bank. Maybe even more so. It’s another excellent scene.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and what the possible influence Gun Crazy had on it. Tate and Laurie were modeled after the two real life bank robbers, so it’s not surprising to see the similarities between the two films. I wouldn’t be surprised if Penn had drawn some inspiration from it.
Gun Crazy is a wonderful film all by itself and can stand on its own. The creative direction, the performances by the cast and the exciting story of this pair of lovers shooting through life with each other all come together to make a terrific movie.
A clip showing Peggy Cummins’ introduction in the film