"Thrill crazy...Kill crazy..." Gun Crazy at the Alex Theatre
August 1, 2014
Some of the classic film screenings I attend in Los Angeles take place in theaters just as old - and sometimes older - than the movies they project. For me, these historic venues usually add an air of authenticity to the evening's proceedings, like I've been transported back to the decade of the film's release, Bugs Bunny cartoons and all.
While I've had the chance to watch movies inside famous theaters such as the Orpheum and the Egyptian, there's still several I've yet to venture inside. Until this past Saturday, the Alex Theatre in Glendale, which originally opened in 1925, was one of them.
To be honest, the theater was never on my radar, because I didn't know it existed. Luckily, my friend Nora contacted me about one of their upcoming double features, a screening of both Gun Crazy (1950) and The Lineup (1958), meant to coincide with Glendale's salute to Cruise Night, a celebration of California car culture. Nora, knowing Gun Crazy is one of my favorite movies, graciously asked the Alex's board if I could write the program notes for the film, and to my delight, they said yes.
The Alex Theatre in Glendale: a beautiful venue with a rich history. I'll definitely be back! (Picture by Kim Luperi).
I've seen Gun Crazy on the big screen three times now, each screening with a different guest: the first time was at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012 with Peggy Cummins (who plays femme fatale Annie Laurie Starr) in attendance, the next screening was the opening night of UCLA's Festival of Preservation in 2013 with Russ Tamblyn (young Bart Tare) doing a Q&A, and most recently the Alex Theatre brought in film noir expert Alan K. Rode to deliver introductions for both Gun Crazy and The Lineup. I hadn't the foresight (or the reason, aka blog) to record the Q&As with either Cummins or Tamblyn, and unfortunately I don't remember much of what either said; however, Rode's passionate prologue is still fresh in my mind, as he shared some insightful behind-the-scenes facts that put the audience in the appropriate film noir mood before the film played.
Gun Crazy has been extensively written about by film scholars and historians - there's an excellent BFI Film Classics book by Jim Kitses devoted to the film - and I've also researched it at length for a 30 page paper I wrote in college, which I glanced over again in preparation for writing the program notes for the screening at the Alex Theatre. That being said, aside from sharing some highlights from Rode's introduction, I’ll only discuss some new observations from this screening that I hadn't noticed before, in addition to the movie's influential car scenes, since that was the theme of the evening. Otherwise, I could probably write a book about Gun Crazy! (And I'll save my coverage of The Lineup for another piece).
Bluey-Bluey the Clown: It's just that some guys are born smart about women and some guys are born dumb.
Bart: Some guys are born clowns.
Bluey-Bluey: You were born dumb. *
* To be fair, I think any man who finds himself under the influence of Annie Laurie Starr, even Bluey-Bluey the Clown, would ultimately succumb to her. She is the ultimate femme fatale.
Ever since he was little, Bart Tare (John Dall) has been fascinated with guns, not as violent weapons but rather for the power they bring him. His obsession leads teenaged Bart to steal a gun one day, resulting in a reform school sentence. After graduating and serving time in the Army, he returns home to his sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) and two best friends, Clyde (Harry Lewis) and Dave (Nedrick Young). Clyde and Dave take Bart to a carnival, where he meets and immediately becomes infatuated with sharpshooting Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), who gets Bart a job with the show.
After an argument with Packy (Berry Kroeger), the sleazy owner of the carnival, both Laurie and Bart are fired, and they hit the road and get married. However, their wedded bliss doesn't last long, because Laurie craves excitement and more importantly, finer things that only money can buy. For some quick cash, she suggests they rob a store, and before Bart knows it, he's well over his head in a cross country crime spree with Laurie that turns increasingly violent. Though Bart wants out, Laurie pleads with him to take one last job: sticking up a payroll department of an Armour meat factory, which she is sure will give them enough money to flee the country and live comfortably. However, with the cops finally closing in on the deadly duo, it doesn't look like their escape plan will pan out...
Alan K. Rode introducing Gun Crazy at the Alex Theatre (Picture by Kim Luperi).
Rode began his introduction of Gun Crazy with a bang: declaring it a "true American original," without which films such as Breathless (1960) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) would not have existed. After watching audiences react to the film's many influential techniques and sequences a few times now, I'd have to say I agree with him.
Gun Crazy was produced by Frank and Maurice King, a duo who worked closely with Monogram Pictures on such cheaply made B-movie flicks as Dillinger (1945), which grossed over $4 million on a budget of roughly $193,000 and starred an actor, Lawrence Tierney, whose rap sheet was probably longer than Dillinger's himself!
Gun Crazy was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by MacKinlay Kantor, who attempted to pen the script. However, Kantor's novelist roots shone through in the screenplay's massive length, and in addition to other issues between Kantor and the King Brothers, by 1947 the producers were looking elsewhere for a writer.
Around the same time, writer Dalton Trumbo appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to answer questions. Knowing he would be arrested when he returned home, Trumbo picked up the phone to an offer from the King Brothers to rewrite and condense Kantor's story. At a time when Trumbo's close friends weren't even returning his phone calls, the writer eagerly took the job so his family would have some money in his absence, accepting a salary in the mid $3000s when he used to receive that much per week. Since it was possible Trumbo was being watched by the FBI, when he met with the King Brothers to exchange drafts of the script they had to pass pages back and forth under café tables, just in case the feds were around! Though Trumbo wasn’t included in the film's credits – Millard Kaufman was – the wrong was righted in 1992 when recognition was restored to Trumbo by the WGA West at Kaufman’s insistence (though Rode noted his name did not appear in the cut we were about to watch).
Director Joseph H. Lewis, known as “Wagon Wheel Joe” for his distinctive visual style and unique camera angles (he would position the camera between the spokes of a wagon wheel for expressive shots), elevated the B-level budget of Gun Crazy with impressive style and perspectives that heighten the audience's awareness of Laurie and Bart's increasingly dire situation. In particular, Rode pointed out Gun Crazy's most famous sequence: the bank robbery scene shot in one continuous 3.5 minute take from the back of a 1949 Kaiser that has to be seen to be believed. How'd the crew do it? Well, they removed the back seat, replaced it with greased boards and a jockey saddle, and squeezed five people in to film while Cummins and Dall improvised what amounted to 11 shots in the front seat; when Dall says he hopes they find a parking spot, he really meant it! There was no rehearsal and only the principal actors and those inside the bank (and one police officer) knew what was going on, which made the scene all the more tense and realistic.
Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) in one of Joseph H. Lewis' signature unique shots.
Casting was key in the making of Gun Crazy, particularly for the leads of Bart and Laurie. Lewis was looking for someone rather ‘weird’ for the role of Bart, and he found him in John Dall, whom Rode said fit the part perfectly; when you look at him you can tell there’s something odd about him. British actress Peggy Cummins, who was cast as Laurie, was originally brought to America by Darryl F. Zanuck to star in Forever Amber (1947). Zanuck conducted a Scarlett O’Hara-type search and ultimately chose Cummins for the lead, but after shooting began, Zanuck felt Cummins wasn’t sexy enough for the part and recast Linda Darnell in the role (ironically, Cummins’ performance in Gun Crazy discounts that belief by about 10000%, in my opinion). Rode had the chance to watch the film with Cummins a few years ago when it screened at the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, and she confided that her performance in Gun Crazy and the film’s subsequent place in cinema history more than made up for the Forever Amber mishap.
Whatever she's trying to get you to do, Bart, just give in now.
Though the original idea was to shoot Gun Crazy in Iowa, where MacKinley Kantor hailed from (his story was partly based on personal events), ultimately California won out, with scenes being shot near the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the bank robbery scene taking place in Montrose; as the film played, whispers could be heard throughout the audience as members pointed out familiar locations on screen.
The King Brothers produced movies until 1969, and throughout their almost 30 year career, all of their films made a profit except two, Rode believed, and Gun Crazy was one of the two that did not perform well at the box office. However, over the years the film has become a cult classic, well-regarded for Lewis' direction, its technical innovation, visual style, and performances. Even the US government agrees: In 1998, Gun Crazy was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry under the grounds that it was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Bart offers Laurie a drag of his cigarette as they drive in to town in the infamous improvised bank robbery sequence, which was shot in one take from the backseat of the car.
Gun Crazy is one of my favorites to watch with an audience - particularly with people who haven’t seen the movie before - because of the varied reactions the film elicits, from horror and suspense to awe and disbelief. For example, when Bart kills a chick early on, one woman loudly gasped not once but twice; the robbery scene played out with a lot of whispers as audience members recalled Rode's discussion of the sequence, thoroughly impressed with its outcome; and Laurie’s bedroom ultimatum to Bart garnered some surprised remarks, as it was more reminiscent of a pre-code film for its frank implication of sex.
Having focused a bit on the use of cars for the program notes, I found myself zeroing in on just how much time Bart and Laurie spend in vehicles (only one of which is legally theirs, I believe -Bart says early on that he doesn't own a car). Many of the couple's key moments in their burgeoning criminal career take place behind the wheel; from Laurie sticking up a driver after hitching a ride and the couple anxiously donning disguises to pass through state borders undetected, to speeding through police barriers and, of course, the famous bank robbery sequence, Bart and Laurie's fate in large part coincides with how fast and how far their stolen rides can take them away from the scene of their latest crime.
All you see in the scene in which Laurie sticks up a driver is a close-up of Laurie's hand on the gun as she points it towards the man. Her body shifts forward with the driver's sudden stop, and you get the point perfectly.
It's also interesting just how much of Laurie and Bart's physical relationship plays out under a car roof. Their initial union stems from a brief talk as they drive away after losing their circus jobs; at Bart's insistence they stop at the next town for a marriage license (Laurie forewarns: "Is that the way you want it?" Obviously, she's not the marrying kind). Every time Bart seems unsure of their increasingly criminal tendencies, Laurie uses love/sex to quickly convince him otherwise. It's crystal clear that crime and violence are a big turn on for her: more than once while speeding away from a transgression Laurie cozies up next to Bart, eagerly turning around to make sure they aren't being followed. Her eyes go wide, lighting up her whole face with a look that's both dangerously delirious and smolderingly sexy. As much as Bart may want out of this lifestyle, it will never happen with Laurie riding shotgun.
Violence and sex go hand in hand for Laurie.
"I saw the two of you - the way you were looking at each other tonight - like a couple of wild animals. Almost scared me."
Packy, the owner of the carnival, tells it like it is, and this time around, I really noticed the intense chemistry between Dall and Cummins. Right off the bat, their intricate ballet on the carnival stage and Laurie's fiery glances seem reminiscent of an animal in heat, and from those first moments, you can tell they're locked for life. A femme fatale if there ever was one, Laurie in particular uses her explosive, impassioned looks and provocative body language to her advantage; whether delivering an extremely seductive ultimatum in a bathrobe while lying on a hotel bed - "Come on, Bart, let's finish it the way we started it: on the level" - or convincing her husband to take one last job before quitting for good, she's got Bart hooked, and he crumbles to Laurie's will every time. Dall and Cummins' passionate exchanges and desperate embraces effectively convey the clear division of power in their relationship, as Laurie's not satisfied unless she has Bart firmly under her command, and his attraction to her works off that carnal control.
Packy called it from the very beginning. Animals!
Hard to resist this, Bart.
"We go together, Annie. I don't know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together."
Bart's line garnered a laugh from the audience - it usually does - but it's true. Chemistry aside, Bart and Laurie are more dangerous together, and it's clear they can't operate apart, even when they try. After the big Armour robbery, they intend to separate for a few months to throw the authorities off their track, but when it comes time to take off in different cars in opposite directions, neither gets farther than 100 feet before they both look back simultaneously and turn the cars around. Bart ditches his ride in the middle of the road and hops in Laurie's car, half landing on her lap as he embraces her. Just like Bart said, neither can work without the other.
Their separation lasted about 30 seconds.
During this screening, the ironic trajectory of Bart and Laurie's relationship was also more noticeable to me: what begins on Laurie's turf (the carnival) ends on Bart's (the mountain), and by the finale the two almost switch roles. Bart is established at the very beginning as a good natured kid obsessed with guns - he cries when he kills a baby chick in a flashback - though by the end, he takes control of the situation like a man when Laurie freaks out (aka tries to take Bart's baby niece with them as a hostage, which elicited quite a loud disapproval from the audience) and literally can't go on anymore. In contrast, Laurie starts off as the tougher of the two - she's killed before and will do almost anything for the good life - but quickly begins to lose it, mentally and physically, by the film's conclusion in the mountains.
Understandably, the audience was shocked at this scene.
This time around, I really noticed Laurie's gradual descent through the number of times she falls down - in the second half of the film alone she takes a tumble while bolting from the Armour robbery, running from a dance hall, and several times while trekking through the mountains. This is the first time I really paid attention to these details, partly because the audience reacted louder with each fall.
As they travel deeper into the mountains, the character switch is almost complete; Bart is the one holding Laurie up, physically by dragging her through the mud and woods and emotionally by calming her down.
It's hard to tell, but that is a swamp Laurie just fell in to.
Role reversal: Bart's now the one who reassures a terrified Laurie.
At the end, Bart and Laurie, both dirty, exhausted, and frightened, hold each other close in a foggy swamp as Bart's childhood friends Clyde and Dave (one a sheriff, the other a reporter) close in on them. In an attempt to get Bart to turn himself in, Clyde and Dave keep repeating that they know he isn’t a killer. However, with Laurie by Bart's side, that may or may not change by the last scene. Facing their fate, Bart tells Laurie that he wouldn’t have it any other way, but the truth is that he never had a chance.
It doesn't seem like this is going to turn out well...
How to hitch a ride with Bart and Laurie:
Gun Crazy is available on DVD from Amazon.com. If you'd like to know why one tagline proclaimed: "Nothing Deadlier Is Known To Man...," I'd suggest you pick up a copy today!