#210. Gun Crazy (1948)

Note: I wrote this several months ago, and the opening might seem immaterial now, but it bleeds into the next movie post, and also it’s just where my head was, so forgive me if it comes off as indulgent or meandering.

It’s Sunday and my grandmother died yesterday. Mom’s mom. She was living up in Sebastian, a small city just south of Orlando, about four hours north of here. My mom had apparently been up there since Monday but I didn’t find out she was there until Thursday cuz it was my birthday and she didn’t wanna bother me.

My brother and I decided we’d go up to see her in hospice care (she’d just been brought home from the ICU) on Saturday. After a certain point she was comatose and my mom, stoical, described the scene as ugly, hopeless, and what we misinterpreted as discouragement turned out to just be a kinda tortured description of what she, almost singlehandedly, was having to deal with. My brother and I didn’t go and, the day after we would have arrived, she died.

I haven’t stood face-to-face with my grandmother for longer than an hour in since I graduated high school and she moved up there. We went up as a family on a handful of occasions and she was dodgy each time. There’d be a rumor at the aprty that she was angry about something and didn’t want to talk to anybody. She’d sit someplace for a moment and then stand and move through the house, kinda restless, and we’d never find out waht was bothering her and then the party’d be over and we’d trade quick goodbyes and leave.

Being so long removed from her, and hearing often of the degree to which she’d isolated herself in recent years, made my brother and me, even my cousins, a bit slow in answering the call when we learned of the prognosis.

I called my mom on the night she found out (this was a few months before today) and I asked how she was taking it and what the immediate emotions were and she said she didn’t know. It was too huge. Not unforeseen, cuz my grandmother’d had a rough (but victorious) bout with breast cancer a few years prior and had been a smoker for years. I remember as a kid how my mom would complain about having to drag my grandmother to the doctor for a fierce cough, a cough that my grandma insisted was nothing, and how my mom told me in the car, “I think the reason she won’t go is cuz she thinks she’s got lung cancer and just doesn’t wanna hear it.” Shaking her head. More frustrated than usual. I’d see it in my dad, too, and the way he talks about his mother’s attitude toward her own ailments.

The adult child’s helplessness to their older parent’s stubbornness. Their self-destruction.

I called my mom when I found out my grandmother had lung cancer and it was a long time before I stopped to realize that the impulse had not been to call my grandma.

I’m tryna write about this in a responsible way, draft after draft, but every shape into which I bend it ends up hitting this wall: the story of my mom’s relationship with her mother isn’t my story to tell. So I won’t tell it. And to not be able to tell that story kinda cuts the legs outta stories of my own, and of my brother’s and cousins, but so be it.

Gun Crazy is a slick and cleverly-shot 90-minute film noir and it made for a nice, quick, immersive reprieve from the situation at hand. John Dall (in a very different kinda role from his appearance in Rope just a couple titles back) falls for Peggy Cummins (one of the more menacing femme fatales to grace the List so far) and they pair up as a handsome young couple of sharpshooters who carry out a series of robberies. Bonnie & Clyde kinda thing. But it’s a road movie as much as a noir. So kinda like Detour, too.

They hook up at a traveling circus act where Annie (Cummins) is working as a sharpshooter with two revolvers, dressed in cowboy regalia. Burt (Dall), a young man recently freed from the reform school to which he was sentenced when, as a kid, he smashed a storefront window to steal a gun, goes with some friends to this circus act and, while there, goes up on stage while Annie’s doing her set, inviting challengers to join her, and beats her in a shooting contest before being offered a job with the troupe. Eventually they run off, elope. They spend all their money. When Burt starts talking about selling his prized pistols in order to make ends meet, Annie says she’ll have to leave him if that’s the case. She doesn’t just want a husband who can provide material goods. She wants a guy who’s gonna give her excitement.

She’s talking about stick-up jobs. Talks him into it with lots of innuendo. Sex. Guilt.

Weird, though: their relationship is totally unconvincing in that they seem to have nothing in common save for this gun fetish but I suppose that can be enough to carry a relationship along for a while. At least to the point that, like these two, you’re broke and desperate and start resenting each other. Then with all the robberies you’ve got the adrenaline, there’s a sexual kick, and a sudden surplus of money (though they never seem to really have a big score, which is cool, the movie does seem to treat the material with a tad more realism than it would have probably gotten in the ’30s, where they would have likely achieved some sinister opulence before plummetting into ruin. Anyway — with all this excitement, tehir relationship goes back to being satisfying. At least for a while. So I guess their chemistry is what’s unconvincing, but maybe they’re bonding over something other than that: circumstance.

Speaking of which: I noticed in the biographies of a certain camp/generation of major American male writers (Mailer, Vonnegut, Updike, Roth) that there’s a marriage that works beautifully for them in teh early days, while they’re poor and languishing in obscurity, that suddenly stops working once they (i.e. the men) achieve notoriety. And I’m sure a big part of it is ego on the guy’s part, a feeling like he can do so much better now that he’s got money and he’s famous. But I wonder if some of it has to do with the actual circumstance of having been poor. Or middle class. The financial struggle, the anonymity, was the glue that held them together. So the wealth is suddenly a kind of displacement. The sudden appearance of money makes the bond feel different. (To meander a bit farther: this doesn’t appear to’ve happened with Stephen King or Dean Koontz or James Patterson — whose faces comprise a Mt. Rushmore of Literary Success, like the most extreme heights of it.)

Anyway. Gun Crazy also feels like a definitive step toward the 1950s and while there are some visual/audio aspects feeding into that vibe (something about the sound quality and the crispness of the picture that just doesn’t feel like it belongs with the movies of the first half of the decade; maybe wardrobe’s a factor, too) one of the things that stands as one of the biggest harbingers of change is the ubiquity of cars. They also look more powerful than the cars of the early ’40s. They’re more aestheticized. Streets and parking lots are packed. And here — famously, beautifully — Joseph H. Lewis pulls off a genius feat of filming the lead-up, the execution, and get-away of a bank robbery entirely from the backseat of Annie’s and Burt’s car. it’s one of the most wonderfully clever camera maneuvers I’ve seen on the List to date. Not that it’s earth-shattering in its creativity, it’s just tasteful and interesting and makes an anxious participant of the viewer.

Gun Crazy is ultimately a slight movie that’s strangely memorable despite that slightness. It doesn’t quite compete for a high position among the film noir that’s appeared on the List up to now (mantle’s still dominated with Mildred Pierce and Gilda), but it’s a genuinely good time and, had I been in a better headspace, I mighta dug it a lot more.


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s