1950’s Gun Crazy (Deadly is the Female) was hardly seen upon release, ignored by critics, and entirely ahead of its time. It’s full of wonderful cinematographic flourishes, wildly creative mise-en-scene, and wicked sexually — especially its link between sex and violence. It’s Bonnie and Clyde meets Detour, yet neither of those. Whatever it is, my hearty applause goes to Joseph H. Lewis, a director whose The Big Combo is another favorite, an equally unique and visually stunning film.
I recently bought the DVD, complete with commentary track by author Glenn Erickson, and I was amazed to find I’d actually never seen the film at all! (Such “holy crap, I was sure I knew this movie” moments are priceless, if embarrassing.) I watched it straight through, and then I watched it again with Erickson’s voiceover, in which he shares background information on the cast and crew; information about the film’s literary origins, production process, and reception; and commentary on its style, tone, plot, and themes. I have my own reading of character and theme (see below), but I appreciated Erickson’s focus on cinematography and style. Taking me through the famous long shot, the unique placement of cameras, the manipulation of small/cheap sets to make them look fresh and authentic, and even costuming choices really deepened my appreciation of the film. I also agree that the film’s pace is perfect: fast and furious until the characters run out of energy as they run from the law, then it slows to a panting crawl, just as it should. So much to applaud here.
The facet that I want to focus on for my own processing of the film is the link between sex and violence, particularly as it shapes how and whether we read Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) as a femme fatale or something more complex. Certainly, as the brash blonde sharpshooter seduces in a single glance gun-obsessed Bart Tare (John Dall — the young, arrogant murderer of Rope) and proceeds to turn him from serviceman into a criminal to fulfill her own desires of wealth, she fits the femme fatale mold perfectly. For instance, when Bart wants to get an honest job, Laurie lures him away from her prone position on a ratty hotel bed. “I won’t be here when you get back” is all she has to say to make him yield.
This said, the couple is richer and worthy of more analysis than a “spider woman finds, seduces, and ruins dupe/dope” description suggests. Bart may be a blind fool, but this is neither Double Indemnity nor Scarlet Street, for Laurie comes to love and need Bart as much as he loves and needs her. The question really is: why do they need each other?
My argument is that the best way to read both Laurie and Bart is as two of a kind, but their needs and behavior is based on strict social norms related to gender.
In the film’s early scenes, we learn that Bart became obsessed with guns dating back to the death of his parents. His big sister cared for him, and encouraged this gun-love. A boy needs this, to have something manly, she argues in court after Bart steals a pistol from a hardware store as a teen. His best friends attest that Bart does love guns, but he never shoots a living thing, not even a dangerous wildcat. (We also flashback further, to Bart’s first BB gun, which he uses to kill a chick but immediately regrets, sobbing.) But the judge sends him to reform school, arguing his criminality in stealing outweighs the fact that he hurts no one with his guns…so far. After reform school, we learn, Bart joins the military, but sees no action. His gun obsession is posed as impotent here, or compromised. What is it guns mean to Bart? What does he want from them, from life? The film never answers these questions, making Bart one of the more unusual noir protagonists.
When Bart and Laurie hook up, it’s after (or during or because of) a shooting competition. She is amazing with trick shots that show off her beauty and skill simultaneously, but she loses her duel by one shot to Bart’s skill. The scene is played with ample sexual innuendo, and it’s obvious they are a perfect pair. Laurie shares little about herself during the film, telling Bart only that she comes from Brighton, England (Peggy Cummins comes from Wales). Brighton is mostly a faraway place where she can see the ocean. Ultimately, neither character has a thoroughly developed backstory, especially as relates to their mutual love of guns.
As the film and the pair’s criminality progresses, Laurie is always the one willing to take more risks, eagerly planning and delighting in Bart as a partner. He complains about wearing a military uniform as a disguise and does everything in his power to ensure that while they wield guns, they don’t shoot them. When he must fire to ensure their getaway, it is to shoot out the tires on a cop car rather than at the cops themselves.
Laurie, by contrast, has already killed (we learn from her former carnival partner), and is willing to do so again. In fact, she is more than willing. The two scenes in which Laurie opines that she will kill others are played with intense relish, visualized in choker close-ups of her lustful expression. And eventually, she does kill the payroll clerk and manager at the Armour offices where they make their big, final heist.
What we have here, then, is a woman who wants to wield real power but is afraid to or prevented from doing so. It’s too easy to read her as a gun-toting psycho. I find it persuasive to read her as a woman of the postwar era, in which “We Can Do It” became “Go home and make babies” for white American middle-class women. There are few options for Peggy, and she’s keenly aware of it. We might easily argue she wants to be a man (to wield the phallus), but the best she can do is be an object of the carnival-goer’s sexualized gaze as she displays power over her female assistant with her gun. It’s why the duel with Bart is so hot: they’re on an equal playing field.
Carnival clown Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager) tells Bart he lacks the ability to know or handle women, and this proves true. Yet, partly, this is because Laurie doesn’t know how to handle herself. She knows she wants more, as in wealth, but they blow their money as fast as they get it, and though Bart insists on marriage as they head out of the carnival together (perhaps mostly to meet Motion Picture Code requirements), it wasn’t on Laurie’s mind. (I’m reminded of Madonna in Dick Tracy singing Sondheim’s lyrics, “Nothing’s better than more.”) Laurie pays lip service when Bart mentions a more conventional life, but when they hide out at Bart’s sister Ruby’s house (where she is raising three children with a husband who is always out of town), it is clear Laurie looks down on Ruby and her choices. She even suggests using the baby as a hostage so the cops won’t shoot at them.
Unlike Double Indemnity‘s Phyllis or Out of the Past‘s Kathie, however, Laurie gives way to her man. She let’s it go when Bart insists they leave the child and takes it from her arms. Laurie uses more conventional seductive methods as well as misdirection that might be her own confusion (that she does want to settle down after just one more big robbery) to control Bart, though once Bart agrees to be a thief, he states that he mostly feels in a daze, like life isn’t real apart from his relationship with Laurie. Of course, their relationship is truly the most unreal thing of all. They cling, they claim love, but Bart is a lost soul who can’t even explain his obsession with guns and Laurie seems to want “more” without any real objective end point or means of gaining real satisfaction from it.
In the end, I’m positing, Laurie wants power and authority granted only to (white) men in America of 1950. Bart, it seems from his behavior, wants a way to avoid thinking, perhaps an escape from the masculinity that means he must be a “real man.” Sure, Bart is Laurie’s puppet in some ways, but she ultimately doesn’t wish him ill. Even when he won’t pull the trigger and stops her from doing so, he’s still her man. It seems perhaps Laurie wants Bart to stop her from giving in to her rage, a desire to kill that gives her pleasure just to think about. But she does not blame him, even when he can’t stop her. And this doesn’t alter when they face their ultimate fate together. In the penultimate scene, Bart wanders into mumbled thoughts about childhood (before he had to be “a man”) while Laurie clings to him, silent, for she has no story at all.
The subversive message of this film that is in many ways so ahead of its time is that it doesn’t matter whether you follow the rules or don’t, whether you’re a “real man” or a “proper woman” or neither. You can survive and be an exhausted and overworked housewife or a serviceman who only shows others how to shoot if you play it straight. Or you can be rebels and wield the literal and symbolic weapons that ultimately only reveal your powerlessness. Life for those who reject middle-class normalcy but find no other definite purpose is a pointless exercise whose end is death.
For me, neither character is a hero or a villain in such a scenario. A spark ignites and unites these two lost souls, and, even if only for a short while, they escape the imprisonment of living the status quo.