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April 4-10, 2007

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'Gun Crazy'

Armour Fou: Peggy Cummins robs everything from banks to meat-packing plants in 'Gun Crazy.'

High Gear

The Stanford Theatre revives Joseph H. Lewis' berserk film noir classic 'Gun Crazy'—the story of a sexy sharpshooter and a sensitive gun nut

By Richard von Busack

WE'VE SEEN some smooth, pale and impassive actresses, but none is as genuinely skull-faced as Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1949), which screens this week at the Stanford Theatre. Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr has a down-turned mouth and the lockjaw of a woman smothering an English accent. She is pocket-size but a crack shot with the pistol, and her eyes have the gleaming calm of a rabid animal waiting to decide who to bite first.

A trick-shot at Packett's Carnival, Laurie demonstrates the ability to shoot cigarettes out of a female cohort's mouth. Between shots, she slowly revolves to show off some exceedingly tight trousers. Her boss, the carny Packett (Berry Kroeger, wearing a striped suit so loud you need earplugs), drums up the business, challenging the rubes to outshoot her. What Packett doesn't know is that Bart Tare (John Dall)—service vet, reform-school graduate and grade-A neurotic—is in the audience. The camera glides up below Laurie to give us Bart's point of view; the half-pint Laurie seems about 7 feet tall, and we get the maximum glow off her bony white forehead.

According to an interview in the 1980s, Lewis gave Dall some helpful direction: He was meeting the woman who was giving him the biggest erection of his life. Bart is slain even before she even pulls the trigger. She shoots him playfully with a blank cartridge; that's Laurie's idea of a joke, like the slow closing of one eye that might be a wink or a better way to get a bead on him. No wonder the movie was originally titled Deadly Is the Female.

The early part mulls over Bart Tare's background. Tare—"tare" is the King James Bible's word for a poisonous weed—was busted by the local sheriff for stealing a pistol. Bart is a character unusual to the movies: a gun fiend who has a safe full of pistols but who wouldn't hurt a flea. Loving guns like an addict, Bart is unable to shoot at living creatures. He suffered horrific remorse as a child after killing a baby chick with a BB gun. He is scared to shoot, and Laurie is scared not to shoot. They were made for each other. The two hit the road together, despite the warning Bart receives from a carnival clown: "Ah, she ain't the type who makes a happy home." Their crime wave begins very casually, too: "Bart, remember what we were talking about?" Laurie asks, broaching the subject.

And what follows is the very pinnacle of the doomed-lovers movie; the plot is a criminal warpath that leads to the old Highway of Diminishing Returns from Bonnie and Clyde to Natural Born Killers. In this essential film noir, Lewis, who directed the equally crazed The Big Combo, combines nonchalant dialogue with het-up visuals, low-rent desert landscapes with the gleam of hot-lit studio photography. Here is the work of an artisan, staying up late figuring out ways to make a movie unique while stripping it down.

The highlight comes in the famed Hampton Bank robbery sequence, a long-take heist in some nameless Western small town, seething under the sun. The camera hunches in the back seat of a Cadillac. The crime takes place offscreen. From the other side of the windshield, we see the waiting Laurie distract a policeman, to keep his head turned before the alarm goes off and the trouble begins. The sequence was rigged with a camera mounted on a greased board. Button mics hidden behind the car's sun visors record the half-heard, impromptu dialogue: "I hope we can find a parking space." This breakthrough scene leads the way to Vilmos Zsigmond's inside-the-car shooting in Sugarland Express. The newest version can be found in Alfonso Cuarón's computer-controlled cam watching the rebels inside their car in Children of Men.

Lewis' photographer was Russell Harlan, a Howard Hawks standby. An old hand with frontier landscapes (Red River), Harlan visually blends Western and film noir ideas, especially Lewis' notion that these are modern-day rustlers. To fix the theme in the witnesses' minds, Bart and Laurie carry out a robbery dressed in their carnival buckskins. The couple's last fateful heist takes place around a herd of cattle, even if the cows are dead, skinned and dangling in an Armour meat-packing plant.

As in Out of the Past, the compass goes wild; scenes that open up in a barn in Montana refocus in Albuquerque. The match-up of too-wise tiny woman and nervous meek man is almost like a study for filming Lolita. Lewis keeps the film from starkness with stock footage, whirling newspaper headlines and a studio-set ending: the two meet their fates in a tule-fogged swamp that looks like the Styx. It's as if they're dead already and don't know it.

What Laurie was packing scared the life out of Bart, anyway. The idea of "gun as phallic symbol" has been laughable for some time, even before Tom Savini showed off his crotch-derringer in From Dusk Till Dawn. In 1949, such Freudianism still had the power to shock. This is a movie where the heroine shoots someone basically just for telling her she ought to wear a skirt. Among other things, Gun Crazy observes the anxieties men still had about women and their recent wartime independence. The chauvinists were coming, but Laurie's kind of woman outguns them.

Movie Times Gun Crazy shows at 7:30pm with This Gun For Hire at 5:55 and 9:10pm at the Stanford Theatre, 221 University Ave., Palo Alto.

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