This is my entry in the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand and The Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon is also a fundraiser, where readers and writers and anyone can donate to the Film Noir Foundation, an organization which helps restore classic films. There is a PayPal account associated with the Blogathon through which you can donate: Click here to donate. Every little bit helps!
Joseph Lewis’ brilliant, erotic, and hugely influential Gun Crazy was originally called Deadly Is the Female (which could be a secondary title to almost every film noir ever made). Peggy Cummins, as Annie Laurie Starr, is definitely deadly. She’s a sharp-shooter, and she makes her living doing shooting shows with a traveling circus, daring good shots in the audience to come up and take her on. Although she is obviously a deadly shot, the “female” isn’t the deadly thing in this movie. What is deadly is the pairing of the two: She picks Barton (John Dall) out of a crowd at one of her shows, and they engage in a shooting competition which is blatantly sexual, and a giant hook for the both of them. They cleave to one another almost immediately. It’s a dare. What is love to these two is not tenderness or communication, but how close they both can come to blowing the other one’s brains out.
Annie Laurie would never have been an upright citizen, she’s too ruthless, but she may have gone on in an unremarkable way, breaking men’s hearts, giving them the shaft, nothing too out of the ordinary, if she hadn’t met Barton. It is their chemistry that is deadly. Together, they become a terrifying combination of elements, psychosexual, manipulative, and 100% codependent. History is full of murderous duos, those who perhaps would never go off the rails alone but who require that “other” to push them over the edge. There was Leopold and Loeb. There were the Papin sisters, in France, maids who murdered their employer. There was Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, whose murder of one of the girls’ mothers inspired Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Then, of course, there was Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that references Gun Crazy at almost every turn (even down to Faye Dunaway’s beret, which makes her look like a svelte revolutionary). In fiction, we have the deadly duos as well. Lady Macbeth hissing to her husband,
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.
In other words, “Don’t be such a pussy.” There are certain types of men who are not susceptible to such insults (try saying something like that to John Wayne, he’d laugh in your face), and then there are others who are weak, there is a faultline in their characters making them vulnerable, suggestible. Macbeth required his wife to turn him into the murdering psychopath that he became. Two elements combine. It is an alchemical reaction, bringing forth monsters.
And so I believe that Gun Crazy is the perfect title for this dark and sexy noir: it’s an attention-getting title, but far more accurate than Deadly Is the Female, which puts most of the blame on the girl. She is definitely the drive, but without his passive, helpless, and sexually-charged submission she would be just another petty thief, screwing men out of their wallets and their hearts. Nothing that would make the front pages.
Through her relationship with Barton, Annie Laurie Starr hits the big time.
Peggy Cummins makes an indelible impression as Annie Laurie. It is one of my favorite performances of all time. The female in film noir is often the “other”, the mysterious force-of-nature that strolls into a man’s life and knocks over all his chess pieces. She is often ruthless. Her blood pressure doesn’t rise like other humans: she remains calm and in control. Her surface may be hot and compelling (Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde bangs and anklet in Double Indemnity), but her heart remains uninvolved, as she calculates her way towards getting what she wants. Annie Laurie has those elements, but she adds to it a hot-blooded subtext. While she does use Barton in order to free herself from the circus, you also get the sense that she needs him, she can’t breathe without him. It makes for a truly disturbing picture, because you get caught up in their weird violent little belljar, and you start to root for the both of them, even though they are wreaking havoc. It is their bond that cannot be denied.
Annie Laurie knows how to play Barton. She’s got him by the balls, so to speak, and here, in Gun Crazy, the sexual nature of such deadly duos is made explicit. I get the feeling that Barton has never been laid before, at least not how she does it. She knows that that’s one of the hooks for him, so she uses it. However, I get the sense that that’s a hook for HER as well. This is what Peggy Cummins brings to the noir table, it is something unique.
These two drive each other crazy.
Here are 5 things about Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, a performance for the ages.
1. There’s something in the way she eats.
Movie actresses didn’t eat like that back then, and it is rare to see them eat like that now. Movie actresses delicately twirl their fork in a plate of linguine, and take tiny neat bites. Eating is awkward in films, and I know some directors who try to avoid showing it at all, just to avoid the hassle. Does Julia Roberts have parsley in her teeth? Is there a bit of tomato sauce on the side of Charlize Theron’s face? Forget it, let’s just cut the scene. I remember the first time I saw Gun Crazy, and I was in love with it from the opening shot, but it was at the moment in the diner when I saw her dig into that hamburger that I felt that tell-tale prickly-goosebumpy feeling on the back of my neck. That goosebumpy feeling is what happens when I realize I am in the presence of something real. Peggy Cummins attacks that hamburger, voraciously, you can even hear her breathing through her nose as she eats. It’s actually kind of gross, and is just right for the character. Actresses often avoid looking unattractive, and it’s easy to see why. They are judged so harshly on their appearances already. Why open themselves up to criticism? Or if they play “unattractive”, they keep one foot back through the Glamour Door, so that we in the audience know that “that is not really them”. Peggy Cummins has none of those worries. She digs her front teeth into that burger, oblivious to the world, chewing hard but not waiting to swallow before going back in for another giant bite. It is a metaphor for the character, obviously, but not the way she plays it. She plays it on the level: “Dammit, I’m effing STARVING.”
2. There’s something in the way she runs.
There are a couple of scenes where the duo has to make a run for it. They rob the payroll office at a giant meat-packing factory and have to flee with the loot. Then, after their crime spree across the country, they realize, while dancing at an arcade in Santa Monica, that they have to run for it. Now. We see the two of them barreling down a sidewalk together. She drops her purse. They hustle back for it. Annie Laurie and Barton have been in this thing together from the beginning. They huddle over floor plans, smoke cigarettes, and argue over tactics. They hold each other close, breathing in one another’s breath. And here, they run for their lives. Often, in movies, when a male and female run from something together, the male maintains his alpha-status, while running, and holds the hand of the female (as though she can’t run without his assistance. But wouldn’t you both be able to go faster if you didn’t hold hands, Sir and Madame?) Barton and Annie are too desperate for such niceties, and also they are far too close to worry about such things. As happened in the first scene when they met, at the circus, she drives him on, and vice versa. Peggy Cummins, in heels, barrels down the sidewalk, or leaps off the platform into the parking lot of the factory, and her urgency, her adrenaline, is part of what makes this character so damn memorable, so herself. She is a femme fatale, but she’s also a grubby dame in heels running for her life.
3. “She thicks man’s blood with cold.” – S.T. Coleridge
… and woman’s too. Cummins’ most frightening moment in Gun Crazy is not during the scenes where she manipulates Barton sexually and emotionally, or when she suddenly pulls a gun out on some unsuspecting citizen. Her most frightening moment is the chilly look she gives to Bart’s sister, while the duo is hiding out at the sister’s house. The sister is a harried mother of three, with a mostly-absent husband, and she loves her brother. She is willing to let them stay with her for a night, but that situation quickly goes south. It is too dangerous. Too many people know they are there. Cummins walks into that small domestic scene, looks down at the kids with an expression entirely lacking in warmth, and immediately starts to size up what she needs to do to get out of there alive. The key is keeping the sister in her cross-hairs at all times. The cross-hairs of her eyes. She stands in the kitchen, filing her nails, but she never looks down at her hands. Her eyes remain trained on Bart’s sister. Finally, Bart’s sister can no longer take it, and says, “Why are you looking at me like that??” Flatly, Cummins tosses the nail file down and says, “To make sure you won’t go to the phone.” This is a dame who is crazy about guns. She can hit a moving target from out of a moving car. But she doesn’t need to point a gun at the sister to keep her in line. All she has to do is look. That look is deadlier than any pistol.
4. The turn-around.
In one of the most amazing scenes in Gun Crazy, the two decide to separate and meet up further down the line. It would be safer if they were not together. It is a wrenching decision for the couple. By this point, they are completely in an ESP-relationship, where words have become almost irrelevant. They are one. This is the unique element that Peggy Cummins brings to her noir anti-heroine. She may be smarter than Bart, that is almost certain, but she, unlike, say, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, doesn’t maintain her cold clear intellect, snowing the men in her path. We may always keep Annie Laurie at arm’s length, she is a scary lady, but we never doubt that she is connected to Bart on a very primal level. Maybe that is because she can so easily control him, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think she no longer knows how to breathe without him. I think she is so hooked into this guy that she couldn’t stop if she tried. He is essential to her being alive. The word “love” doesn’t even come into it. One can live without love, although it is hard. But Annie Laurie cannot live without this man, quite literally. So, after a tormented and rushed goodbye, they flee to two separate cars on a quiet street. Director Joseph Lewis films all of this in a rush of movement, his camera following the two cars as they pull away from separate curbs, the couple looking back at one another, devastated. They drive away from one another. At the same moment, they both put on the brakes, and stare back at each other. Then, as one, they both turn their cars around and barrel back towards one another. Brakes screech as the cars come to a halt. Bart jumps out of his car and runs toward her car. She moves over, he gets behind the wheel, and the two doomed gun-crazy lovers drive off. Here, Joseph Lewis doesn’t do any cuts, the end of the scene occurs in one take, a giant circle, where the moving camera is then attached to the grille of her car and follows them off. The camera had been moving up until that point, following him, so to see it suddenly stationary, driving off with the car, is perfect. It’s an incredible shot, more subjective and urgent due to the fact that it is one take. From what we have seen of Annie Laurie up until this moment, we may not be sure about her. We may think that she, like so many noir dames, is out to double-cross her innocent lover with the wide grin. She may be ready to kick him to the curb. He was dead weight anyway. But she plays this rushed scene with abandon that almost borders on the embarrassing, the best part about it. She is serious, grim, and in survival-mode, but as they drive away from each other, she can’t bear it. When he runs towards her car, and she comes into the frame, she is nearly leaping out of her seat, from her need of this man, her need to be close, to merge. This is not a swoony romantic scene. It is the companion piece to how she ate that burger. Her need to be close to this man is life or death, and that is what Peggy Cummins is playing in the frenzied moments when he gets into the car beside her, and they embrace. She nuzzles him, laughing out loud, head thrown back, a voracious portrait of need, desire, and satisfaction that is rather scary, and also totally right. Gun Crazy works on that ultra-disturbing level, the level that most memorable crime movies approach. We in the audience have moral compasses and recognize that these people need to be caught. But we get so involved in their story, we can’t help but hope it all works out, even though we know it will not. There is nothing calculated or manipulative about how Peggy Cummins nuzzles him and laughs, throat exposed, head thrown back, as the car drives off. She has thrown her lot in with his. For better or worse. If they’re going to go down, they will go down together.
5. The Standoff
Doomed standoffs are nothing new in the movies. The standoff between Annie Laurie, Bart, and the cops chasing them through the mountains, calls to mind every standoff filmed, before or since. I think of Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra huddled in his mountain hide-out, surrounded on all sides, screaming down at the cops. Then there’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Or Dog Day Afternoon. What happens when two wily people come to the end of the line? How do they finally give up? How do they decide to “go out”? When they realize there is no way out, how do the criminals react? If the movie has done its job, we still hope for a respite, for some bargaining tool, for some deus ex machina. But the characters in the film are ahead of us out in the audience. It’s over. They know it. Their time is up. There is one final decision: HOW to go out. One final act of bravado or rebellion? Stepping directly into the line of fire? In Gun Crazy, Annie Laurie and Bart have been chased into the mountains. There is no more road. They abandon their car and take off on foot. Ferocious dogs are on their trail. The duo stumble through rivers, trying to throw the dogs off, but the altitude is so high the two struggle with catching their breath. She starts to lose momentum. She leans against a tree, heaving for breath. She can’t understand why she can’t run anymore. A very human moment: this criminal suddenly realizes her fallibility. Altitude affects us all. They finally hole up in a swamp, as the fog rolls in. They lie in one another’s arms in the darkness, listening to the barking dogs in the distance, the echoing shouts of the cops looking for them. Night has fallen. They are filthy. Peggy Cummins’ hair is long and wild, and in this, she looks completely and utterly modern. While Bart was classified as a “juvenile delinquent” very early on, due to his love affair with guns, it is Annie Laurie who is the career criminal. Bart wants to try to do something good with his love of guns, he has vague plans of teaching others to shoot. He can’t even shoot an animal. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Annie Laurie is a different story. She wants money, a good time, nice things. She’ll do what it takes. She has found a couple of stooges along her grimy little path, but these men were annoying to her. Too easily manipulated. The heat between her and Bart, seen immediately, is something she cannot resist. It’s not only the altitude that proves to her her human-ness. It’s her response to Bart. She starts to make decisions that lead her to her inevitable end, because of her connection to Bart. She loses perspective. There’s a moment in the swamp, in the night, when she raises her head up a little bit and looks down at him. The terror in her eyes is the rabid terror of a fox caught in a trap. It is against her very nature to allow herself to be caught, killed. But this is true for all of us. It is her decision, finally, about “how to go out”. She’s the one who throws herself into the void, shouting at death and those who want to capture her, that here she is, HERE SHE IS, she’ll kill ALL of them before she lets them take her. You can see that knowledge, of where she is going, in her eyes, as she raises her head and looks at her lover. Death is present. It’s over. It’s already over.