Saturday, 23 February 2008

Gun Crazy (Lewis, 1949)

Where to begin? This is such an exhilarating joyride of a film, and so much of that can be accredited to Joseph H. Lewis's virtuosity behind the camera. The director (whom I had never heard of prior to this) assuredly ratchets up the tension by employing every trick in the noir book - so in come the acute-angles, the ominous toying with light and shadow, the frenzied cutting rates at key moments, the elaborate tracking shots. And yet, for all this elaborate stylization it's something closer to documentary realism which marks the film's greatest setpiece (and also the point where I ran out for air!) - a single-take of a bank robbery filmed from inside the back seat of the getaway car. With this bravura sequence, Lewis thrillingly affirms his grasp of film language and the spatial and temporal possibilities that the medium offers.

Gun Crazy presents the audience with a story that we've grown accustomed to over the years: "love on the run", aka Bonnie and Clyde pre-Beatty and Dunaway. Lewis & co. add a peculiar spin on the subject matter however which maintains our enjoyment on a base level whilst confronting us with stark questions about gender, sexuality and violence. A cinematic prologue establishes the perverse sexual undercurrents that will pulsate throughout the film: we witness the fervor of the young Bart's thirst for guns, and we suggestively learn how it's "something else about the guns that gets him, not the killing." In spite of the phallic connotations that repeatedly demand consideration however, the film makes its case less for repressed homosexuality than it does for an emasculated masculinity implicitly motivated by the post-war context (the lack of a father figure established in the prologue no doubt plays into this.) The firmness of Bart's devotion to guns makes his inability to use them in their traditional filmic roles (as a means to kill) all the more striking, and a compelling contrast is provided by the character of Annie who is in essence a walking, talking and decidedly attractive human firearm. It makes perfect sense for Bart to fall in love with this most curious of femme fatales - a woman who exploits her femininity in order to disguise her sociopathic tendencies: her adoption of the 'masculine' traits lacking in Bart (her superior wiles, her domineering personality, her ability to kill) alludes to an overlap in gender roles, which makes their love a near-necessity. They need one another because of what they lack as individuals and because together they can counter those deficiencies.

The motivations of Annie's character are dubious for much of the film, and even after several robberies with Bart it's possible to doubt the sincerity of her love. Lewis puts paid to such notions in an extraordinary sequence following the couple's final robbery, however: the plan is for them to depart in separate vehicles and meet three months later after the dust has settled - and yet, in a stunning avowal of their mutual dependence, the camera cuts between each as they abruptly u-turn at the same time and reunite in the middle of the road (tellingly, it's Bart who leaves his car to get into Annie's.) This is l'amour fou taken to its dizzying extreme, augmented by a delirious substitution of foreplay with gunplay - thereby blurring the lines between eroticism and violence. To depict such bold forms of sexuality would be noteworthy in itself, but Lewis provides more by extracting every ounce of pulp from his doomed lovers' tango with fate: their tantalising first encounter is a brilliant exercise in marrying overt (Bart's attraction, Annie's gun-wielding seductress, the firing challenge) with covert (it doesn't take a genius to figure out the innuendo in this sequence.) Annie's employer/former lover describes the budding young couple as "wild animals", and he isn't far wrong for Annie's primal feline pinpoints the animalistic urges in Bart's passivity and exploits them.

To discuss this film without addressing the issue of guns would be foolish, but I'll confess that I'm not entirely well-versed in America's gun laws. Certainly, their accessibility and availability is of cause for concern here - particularly in the early segments featuring the young Bart. The B-movie sensationalist in Lewis glorifies and fetishizes the issue to a certain extent with the character of Annie, but to his credit the moral centre of the film is to be found within Bart and he's a solid reflection of our desire for thrills but also our disdain for harming others. Both Annie and his boyhood friends encourage him to kill at certain points, and its his resistance to them that the film venerates. Appropriately then, when he succumbs to murder at film's end the narrative compels him to meet his own death, in spite of the perhaps-justifiable reasoning behind his decision.

At the risk of negating all my rambling, I need to conclude by emphasizing just how tremendously enjoyable this film really is. The film's bizarre marriage of sex and violence is the type of concoction that will no doubt reward endless viewings, and on its basest level its an electrifying chase drama that swathes a familiar narrative with an irresistible sense of urgency. And then there's Peggy Cummins. Unheard of to contemporary audiences, but worthy of immortalization for this one turn alone. She's meant to be playing British (she even claims to be from my hometown!), although the accent is all over the place. What does it matter though, when one's confronted with a presence like this? Her performance is equal parts delicious and ferocious, and her success at internalizing Annie's insecurities renders all other noir females dull and lifeless by comparison. And finally, I return to Lewis whose sense of style cannot be commended enough. How could such an infinitely talented director have become so marginalized by Hollywood? Gun Crazy is perhaps above all a reminder of the painful restrictions imposed by the studio system, but on a more positive note, it's as fine a testament to the rewards of working outside of that mainstream as I can think of.

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