Cartoon-like rain pours down onto a movie set. A young boy enters and presses his face against the window of a store — his eyes light up as his gaze rests on the pistols in the display case behind the glass. Out of nowhere, he smashes the window and steals the guns, only to be immediately caught by a local policeman.
His reason for stealing: “Shooting is the only thing I like.” Guns are his obsession, but he never shoots to kill. Needless to say, this excuse doesn’t hold up well, and he is sentenced to four years of reform school.
No, “Gun Crazy” is not about trigger-happy rednecks or even about Charlton Heston as a young man. The film is actually a 1950s film noir about a romantically entangled woman and man who love guns more than they love each other.
Returning home from reform school as a grown man, Bart (John Dall, “Atlantis, the Lost Continent”) attends a carnival where he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummings, “Dentist in the Chair”), a British sharpshooter who doesn’t have an accent and loves guns just as much as Bart does. The two go together like “guns and ammunition.”
Annie Laurie, however, is bad news. She wants excitement and a luxurious lifestyle. In order to attain the fur and diamonds she desires, Annie Laurie convinces Bart to rob banks. The two embark on a cross-country heist, moving from small time crimes in which they shoot gumball machines to scare an elderly clerk, to bigger offenses that include chase scenes through meat freezers. As always, a life of crime doesn’t pay and the pair meets a tragic end.
For a movie from the 1950s, “Gun Crazy” is remarkably oversexed. Annie Laurie and Bart share a bed and go at each other like wild animals during the make-out scenes. Director Joseph H. Lewis (“The Big Combo”) made sure sexual tension ran through the movie like a live wire. At times, the sexual elements come out overdone, but that’s what makes the film enjoyable — seeing the repressed tensions of the 1950s manifest themselves onscreen.
“Gun Crazy” is innovative not only in its portrayal of relationships between characters but in its cinematography. One particularly famous bank-robbery scene was created without filming the actual robbery. Filmed inside a car, the frame captures only the back of Annie Laurie’s head as she makes small talk with a patrolman while Bart robs the bank off-screen. No action is shown, just the reactions of characters; suspense keeps rising.
“Gun Crazy” was among the first films to consciously separate the camera and the action. To this day, the technique appears all over popular cinema; Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” is almost entirely crafted with this separation of action and what’s on screen.
Apart from the robbery scene, “Gun Crazy” does little to distinguish itself from other film noirs. But it’s still a classic, and while it may not have gained the critical acclaim of movies like “The Big Sleep” or “The Maltese Falcon,” there is no reason to dismiss “Gun Crazy” as irrelevant. These films in general have a tremendous presence in modern-day films and culture. Because “Gun Crazy” has all the required elements of a noir — hard-boiled dialogue, a touch of blood and gore, the swarthy small town cop, shadows and the femme fatale — it can’t be written off.
Directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and even Eli Roth all borrow bits and pieces of quintessential noir elements and mix them with the directors’ respective films’ brisk dialogue and bloody scenes. The genre’s influence has spread to television — HBO’s “Bored to Death” contains all the elements of film noir ala “Gun Crazy.” It can even be found on the radio, with Garrison Keillor’s “Guy Noir, Radio Private Eye” on NPR.
Most modern-day noirs mock films like “Gun Crazy,” and it’s not terribly hard to do. The older noirs are stiff and outdated — most actors would have difficulty keeping a straight face while delivering lines such as “Come on, Bart, let’s finish it the way we started it: on the level.” For some reason, the toughness of the old black-and-white film noirs translates into nothing but laughter.
But this isn’t to say their influence shouldn’t be taken seriously. There’s a reason noir-referenced motifs like fedora hats, smoke curling from the end of cigarettes and the blonde bombshells strutting into police stations keep popping up. They are effortlessly cool and stylish — and these are qualities a lot of films strive for.