The opening night of this year’s Noir City can be described, by any standard, as a resounding and spectacular success.
Upon my entrance to the theater 15 minutes before showtime, I was greeted with a house that was packed solid. The only seats available were a select few in the upper balcony and two or three in the front row, upon which my guest and I quickly descended. It was one of the most sold out crowds I have seen at any event at the Castro Theatre, and it is a testament to how much film noir is appreciated and woven into the cultural fabric of San Francisco.
Along with its credit as a frequent backdrop for many film noir plotlines, San Francisco is also the headquarters for the nationally renowned Film Noir Foundation, of which native San Franciscan film noir scholar Eddie Muller is the founder and president. Muller often makes appearances on Turner Classic Movies and is a true celebrity among cinephiles, especially those with a specific interest in the genre of film noir.
This evening, Eddie Muller delivered an opening statement to the crowd, outlining some of the reasons why he thought this film was one of the most influential to come out of the genre. Without Gun Crazy, he said, there would not have been a Bonnie and Clyde as we know it today, and the direction of Joseph H. Lewis has inspired directors of various genres to replicate his creative and innovative ways of shooting a scene. Indeed, there were many very creative innovations employed on the set of Gun Crazy, including the use of a wheeled platform to carry the camera in driving scenes.
The film is a clear predecessor to Bonnie and Clyde, but with a particular emphasis on the psychology of a man obsessed with guns. The film opens when Bart (Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame plays him as a child, John Dall is Bart as an adult) is a teenager, convicted of robbing a gun store. We learn that Bart hates the thought of killing anything, but has had a fascination with firearms since he was very young. The judge sentences him to live at a reform school until the age of 18 to try to curb this enthusiasm for guns.
Bart comes out of the reform school with very little changed, and at a carnival with his buddies he meets and falls in love with Annie “Laurie” Starr, an English shooting prodigy who challenges him to a gun match. Bart succeeds in getting her away from her no-good boyfriend, but Laurie quickly realizes that Bart doesn’t work, and to support the lifestyle she wants, they will need to have money. Instead of looking for work, Bart and Laurie turn to a life of crime. Much of the movie centers around the elaborate schemes, fake identities, and cunning deceptions that they pull off to avoid being caught, and one particular scene, in which the pair robs a bank, is absolutely magnificent in its suspense, drama, and cinematography.
Gun Crazy was made in 1950, and this meant, of course, that wayward women ultimately had to be punished according to the production code. The way this was done was poignant, creative, and wrapped the film up very neatly. Filmmakers often struggled with this mandate, and many film endings under the code are blunt and rather unimaginative because the filmmaker was forced to punish a wayward woman somehow. Not so in Gun Crazy, it made complete sense. The work was based on a short story by MacKinley Kantor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was not, however, given any screen credit due to his blacklist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. Full credit went to Trumbo’s “front,” Millard Kaufman, and Trumbo’s name appears nowhere in Gun Crazy. He served 11 months in prison for contempt of congress the same year Gun Crazy was released, for refusing to name names to the HUAC as part of the Hollywood Ten. Click the link to learn more about this part of Hollywood’s history.
Particularly intriguing in the film is Peggy Cummins, who plays what Eddie Muller described as “the most ferocious woman ever on film.” She shoots, robs banks, and is an all-out criminal by nature. It is a juicy role, and Cummins plays it with great aplomb. We were lucky enough to have Peggy Cummins with us this evening–she flew out from her home in London, where she has lived for the past 50 years. She was clearly moved by the crowd’s ovation, and expressed multiple times her gratitude for this audience that remembers and enjoys her work. Eddie Muller engaged with her about many aspects of her life and career, and she is a great talker. Charming and funny, she is a beautiful and active 87-year-old woman who walks unassisted and has a mind as sharp as a tack. She shared memories of working on the movie with John Dall and Joseph Lewis, and recalled in particular the ending scene of the movie, in which she could literally feel the emotion of the moment. She also noted that the famed bank robbery scene was filmed in one take, which wowed the audience.
Tomorrow, Noir City’s tribute to Peggy Cummins continues with Curse of the Demon at 1:00 and 5:00, and Hell Drivers at 3:00. If you’re in the area, come join, it will be a real treat.
Hope to see you there!