Reefer Madness for gun control?
Gun Crazy often feels like it, so heavy-handed (yet ultimately insincere) is its emphasis on the corrupting nature of firearms.
This 1950 film noir, written by Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor and directed by Joseph H. Lewis, opens with the sad story of 14-year-old Barton Tare, who we first see throwing a rock through a hardware store window in order to steal a handgun. At his ensuing hearing, the judge laments “this obsession he seems to have with guns” and decrees that Barton should be taken from his home and sent to reform school.
Barton emerges years later as a seemingly decent guy, except that he’s still obsessed with guns and now has the too-deep, skeletal smile of John Dall (Rope, Spartacus). When he meets a sharp-shooting dame named Annie Starr at a traveling carnival, it’s shared fetish at first sight – never mind that the ringmaster warns “she ain’t the type that makes a happy home.”
It’s worth noting that Barton and Annie continue to wear the Western outfits from the carnival long after they’ve left the show.
Annie is played by Peggy Cummins, which means the ringmaster’s warning was redundant. The moment we see her sideshow act – in which she shoots a series of items out of the mouth of her assistant, but gives you the impression that she really wishes she would miss – we know she’s a murderess. It isn’t long until Annie and Barton have left the carnival and are knocking off banks, with Annie willing – even eager – to kill witnesses. Poor Barton laments, Reefer Madness-style, “I’m not a killer. I don’t want to be a killer!”
To give you an idea of the flamboyant touch Gun Crazy has, it’s worth noting that Barton and Annie continue to wear the Western outfits from the carnival long after they’ve left the show. In fact, the movie’s showcase sequence – a three-and-a-half-minute single take of a bank robbery, in which the camera never leaves the back seat of their getaway vehicle – features Annie taking out a cop while in Wild West getup.
And so Gun Crazy is never dull, though it is problematic. What are we to make of its attitude toward firearms, not to mention its depiction of Annie as heartless temptress? (It was originally titled Deadly is the Female.) I’m not sure of the answers, or how much it matters. Gun Crazy is a burst of movie id all its own, a confluence of sex, sexism and violence that ends with its antiheroine and her victim trapped in a steamy swamp. Don’t play with guns, kids. You’re liable to get shot.