While watching Haywire a few days ago, I noted that Steven Soderbergh favored, during moving car scenes, to photograph from the back seat. That is certainly a nod to Gun Crazy, a 1950 noir from Joseph A. Lewis. Though a B-picture, it has come to be known as an influential film and one of the best examples of “femme fatale” noir in the genre.
Shot on the cheap, Gun Crazy tells the story of Bart Tare, a young man obsessed with guns, but not killing. A flashback shows him shooting a chick as small boy, which turns him off of killing, but not of shooting, as when he is a teenager (and played by Russ Tamblyn), he gets sent to reform school for stealing a gun. After serving four years in the army as a shooting instructor, he is on the hunt for a job.
Now played by John Dall, he is instantly captivated after a trip to a carnival, where he sees Peggy Cummins, who appears to him with six shooters in both hands. She is a trick-shot artist, and the two find instant rapport. She throws over the sleazy carnival manager (Berry Kroeger, in a fine performance) and she and Dall impulsively marry. But she wants the good life, and for her that means becoming stick-up artists.
Of course, this leads nowhere fast, as the two end up on the run. Dall can’t leave her–it’s clear that they have a great sex life–and they end up surrounded in a swamp in the California mountains. It’s a cautionary tale–those women-with-guns calendars are for exhibition only.
What’s so important about the film is its use of the camera, specifically a several minute single take in which Cummins drives toward a bank, and then Dall gets out, goes into the bank, comes back out, and they make their getaway, all shot from the back seat, and in real traffic, without rear projection. Only the actors and those in the bank knew what was going on–passersby did not. The verisimilitude of the scene is enthralling, and the technique is repeated several times. It’s thus a lack of money that makes for a more exciting film.
Cummins is an attractive woman, but there’s something sinister about her appearance–maybe it’s her doll-like eyes, while Dall is a complete dupe, clearly thinking with a different part of his body. These types of films are legion in noir history (an alternative title for this film was Deadly Is the Female). Above all, the film is a good thriller, with genuine excitement and characters that are written with some depth.