Gun Crazy (1949)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Warner Home Video, $19.97

Late one night, an adolescent Bart stands in the soaking rain and stares, transfixed, at the guns in a store-window display. Overcome with desire, he smashes the window and snatches a gleaming pistol, only to slip on the wet street and have the local sheriff help him up. Young Bart has a history with guns; he’s obsessed by them. Even his sister and guardian can’t talk the judge out of sentencing Bart to reform school.

Cut to 10 years later, when Bart (John Dall) returns to town after serving a stint in World War II. While watching a sideshow act at a traveling carnival, Bart catches the eye of the show’s star shooter, Annie “Laurie” Starr (Peggy Cummins). Aroused by her shooting prowess, he challenges her to a competition and wins. Bart soon joins the carnival, and it isn’t long before he and Laurie ditch their jobs and hit the road, making a pit stop at the justice of the peace. At first, love-struck Bart hesitates when Laurie suggests there’s a way to get the finer things in life that’s easier than working for a living. But soon the passionate pair is holding up stores and banks, making quick scores and feeding their gun lust.

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, Gun Crazy (a.k.a. Deadly Is the Female) is a brash and reckless crime story that has long been a cult favorite largely because of its freewheeling, edgy tone. While the picture’s expressionistic style utilizes many of the technical devices used in classic film noir — including sharp, contrasting light and tight, often claustrophobic framing — what makes it unusual is the way in which it breaks with many of those standards. As the narrative progresses, Bart and Laurie’s crimes are depicted with an increasingly gritty naturalism; the action moves away from studio sets to extensive location work, scenes filled with intense sunlight and open spaces that are often dense with traffic.

To realize this unique visual approach, Lewis called upon cinematographer Russell Harlan, ASC (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Thing from Another World, Blackboard Jungle). Harlan, who started his career in Hollywood as a stunt double, was a perfect fit for the picture’s physically taxing camerawork. Many of the key action sequences are deftly executed on location and feature memorable points of view, and several of the shots are considered classics of the genre, especially a four-minute bank robbery that was shot in one take from the backseat of a car, and the frenetic getaway from a payroll robbery.

Warner Home Video recently released Gun Crazy on DVD as an individual title and as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection boxed set. The disc presents a uniformly sharp and faithful rendering of Harlan’s monochromatic work; the gray scales have full tonality and the blacks are solid. With the exception of what appear to be periodic minor scratches on the source material, the overall image is very good. The monaural sound needs slightly more amplification but is relatively clear and free of distortion.

Though the disc comes up short on supplements, the audio commentary by online DVD critic Glenn Erickson is thorough and informative. In an engaging and articulate fashion, he details the production’s history, comments extensively on the film’s style and pace, explains the effects of the Hollywood Blacklist on the picture’s screenwriting credits, and presents perspectives on Gun Crazy’s place in the film-noir canon.

A B-movie potboiler that has influenced many filmmakers, Gun Crazy remains a classic of its kind. The doomed romance tainted by crime and violence that is so memorably presented in the picture is echoed in films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Getaway, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and even Thelma & Louise. The images of Dall and Cummins remain potent, high-octane signifiers of sex and violence in American cinema, and their legendary crime spree lives on in this DVD.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.