Bart and Annie have one of the best meet cutes that I’ve encountered in the noir. Bart (John Dall) tall, handsome, but withheld and gawky, hits the carnival with a couple of friends to blow off a little steam after back to back stints in reform school and the army (I think I’d want to blow off more steam than a carnival could accommodate, but to each his own I suppose). The opening, awkwardly, establishes that Bart had a habit of letting his childhood obsession with firearms run away with him, but the Army, it would seem at least, has straightened him out and given him the kind of structure that the institution tends to claim is best for troubled adolescents.
That is until Bart gets a load of the appropriately named Annie Starr (Peggy Cummings), who shoots like Annie Oakley and very definitely resembles a star. After a few demonstrations, Annie’s announcer challenges the audience to a shoot-off with the Starr. Bart, transfixed, allows his friends to nudge him up unto the stage. Annie, clad in full rear-hugging cowgirl regalia which she compliments with a little Catholic school girl smile that barely disguises her naughty thoughts (the content of these thoughts representing the chief misunderstanding between men and women in the noir, men think it signals angry sex, women know it to actually be active fantasizing of ill gotten gains) is quite a sight as she blazes through her targets, but its Bart’s reaction to Annie that turns the scene on.
Many men of the noir are stupid, sexist pigs that get exactly what they deserve; Bart is more of an innocent. The trouble we’ve seen him get into so far has only been about a childish urge to possess that didn’t involve any harm, and he looks at Annie in the same way. He needs to have those feverish, pistol firing hands on him, but, and this is key, he actually likes her, is even in awe of her. Annie, of course, initially sees Bart, and thinks “schmuck”. The poignance of Annie and Bart’s first scene, and still yet another part of the turn-on, is that Bart would readily agree with Annie’s assessment of him…until he picks up the pistols for himself and beats Annie on her own turf. The carnal heat of this scene is considerable, but it also carries something more innocent, the fantasy of not only bedding the forbidden woman but being simpatico with her.
And so, inevitably, after a short courtship of sex and needling for money, Annie talks Bart into going along with a plan that she’s always had in the back of her mind, which, to me, bore a strong resemblance to your garden variety stick-up, though perhaps I’m blind to some intimate subtlety. Bart has one condition, and that’s that they absolutely do not kill anybody. Whether Annie violates this rule or not I’ll leave for you to discover but with a film called Gun Crazy I’m only giving you one guess.
Like The Narrow Margin, Gun Crazy is a scrappy, fast, surprisingly modern thriller. Director Joseph H. Lewis (working from a script co-written by an aliased Dalton Trumbo) makes the most of his clearly low budget, capturing the heists in immediate, hand held camera work that works in fleeting suggestion, feeding the audience just what they need and leaving the rest unsaid. The most effective bank robbery in the film, tellingly, doesn’t even show any of the bank robbery, just Annie’s mounting anxiety as she finds herself leaving the getaway car to distract a cop at the last tangible moment.
Gun Crazy even more notably withholds the judgment that was a prerequisite in crime films at the time. As in Bonnie and Clyde (and over fifteen years earlier to boot), the film has an uncomfortable empathy with its heroes, despite the innocent people who die (sorry), as Bart points out, “so we don’t have to work.” Cummings and Dall paint an interesting, more realistic than usual for the genre portrait of a relationship that swings back and forth like a pendulum, changing roles in a way that actual couples might recognize.
Bart initially plays the patsy as we expect, but the heists key into his meticulous, introverted nature, and bring something out in him. Annie thinks she’s the boss, but her hot head would be nowhere without Bart, and, by the middle of the film, she recognizes that. There’s a moment toward the end when Bart and Annie agree to separate, wait a few months, and then reunite with the cash. I resigned myself to Annie’s inevitable betrayal but the film surprised me, the lovers don’t even make it to the end of the road before reuniting. Bart’s mind, quicksilver trigger finger, and unyielding devotion have melted this intimidating blonde force of destruction. At the end, lying in an atmospheric, perfectly foggy swamp, Bart says that he’s happy; it’s a testament to the strange, convincing pulp power of Gun Crazy that I believed him.