Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy  (1950) is a film that I have probably reviewed in some previous form.  It is a genre movie -- armed and dangerous young lovers on the run roughly similar to Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves like us, and You only live Once.  Within its limitations, the movie is perfect -- the picture is beautifully shot and paced, effectively edited, and the performances of its stars are satisfyingly weird and powerful.  For some reason, I don't think the film is particularly memorable -- that's the reason that I think that I viewed the picture earlier, maybe even wrote about it, but couldn't exactly remember what I earlier concluded or really, even, much about the movie.  (I seem to recall a bravura extended take involving a bank robbery in a small-town, the entire sequence filmed from the back seat of the robber's car -- but, perhaps, I only read about this famous episode in the movie and have confabulated a memory of seeing it.  Although I watch a lot of TV and movies, it's maddening for me to note that words are what I best remember -- if someone has characterized a movie with certain memorable phrases, I tend to remember those words and not the images that motivated the description.)   It's a matter of esthetic interest to me whether a work or art must be memorable -- that is, must inscribe itself in the viewer's memory -- to be counted as fully successful.  Many genre films, I think, can be fully realized and, even, masterpieces of a kind without being memorable -- after all, can anyone really differentiate in their memory between the Ozu's low-key melodramas, movies like Late Spring or Early Spring or An Autumn Afternoon that are all alike and all transcendentally beautiful?

Joe E. Lewis, the director of Gun Crazy, gets things off to a vivid start with the film's opening scene -- a boy stands in pouring rain hypnotized by a handgun in a store window in a dreary-looking small town.  There is a close-shot of the boy and the rain on his face, bedewing him like sweat, make him look spectacular crazed.  The kid steals the gun, is immediately caught, and sent to reform school notwithstanding his sister's pleas to the Court that he is mentally ill, "gun-crazed."  Six or eight years later, fully grown and now played by John Dall, the character returns to his hometown where a carnival is underway.  At the sleazy carnival, the hero meets a femme fatale, a girl with a strangely impassive Kabuki-white kewpie doll face who is featured in a target-shooting act. This woman is not only as gun-crazed as the hero, but, also, a homicidal sociopath.  She seduces the hero and he joins the traveling circus to be with her.  But when the couple are fired from the carnival, the girl incites the hero into a series of armed robberies.  Although the hero can't bring himself to shoot at anything that is alive, the girl doesn't have any such scruples.  Trigger-happy, she guns down a few security guards and bystanders.  On the run, the doomed duo return to the hero's hometown in the foothills of the mountains.  The dragnet closes in on them and they flee into the high sierra with predictably fatal results.  John Dall is an odd-looking lead man -- he's something like tall, lanky, and seems clumsy, a bit like a dough-faced Jimmie Stewart or, even more disconcerting, when filmed from some angles he's a dead-ringer for the very young Max von Sydow.  Mostly Dall plays the part realistically and he is very likeable in a low-key manner.  Only on a couple occasions, does he seem crazed -- on those occasions, his face looks wet and his eyes bug out in an alarming way.  (David Thomson has noted that the love affair between the couple seems implausible because Dall's character seems to be gay -- I wouldn't go that far in characterizing the compelling strangeness of the interactions between the leads, but would agree that their relationship is based on a mutual obsession with firearms and both of them seem most vividly engaged when playing with their weapons.)  The scenes in the wilderness remind me of Japanese films of the fifties -- a marsh is suggested by the calligraphic gesture of a few cattails in the mist.  Several of the robberies are cleverly staged for almost documentary realism -- certainly, the extended one-take bank robbery sequence filmed mostly from within the circling getaway car is exceptionally powerful and suspenseful precisely because the scene is so under-dramatized (we can't even see the faces of the characters for most of the sequence -- the camera just shows us the windshield and the backs of their heads and their nervous banter seems overhead and not staged.)  There is a set-piece payroll robbery at an Armour meat packing plant that is marvelously designed -- we see the topography of the robbery first as scribbled as a diagram on a newspaper and, then, in a series of shots showing the approach to the crowded personnel department followed by the same sequence of images, although now reversed as well as rushed and distorted with expressionistic emotion, when the robbers depart from the place under fire.  The movie creates a sense of doom and dread that has a nightmarish intensity -- we can feel the pressure of the cops pursuing the lovers, sense their desperation, and, in the final scenes, feel their panic and terror as they are hunted down in the mountain wilderness.  This is the kind of movie in which people are always stumbling and falling, getting tangled up in briars, or losing their way.  The film is like a Haydn string quartet, an abstract exercise in form, rhythm, and pacing -- it's perfect and, somehow, mostly forgettable. 

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