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“I want action!” snaps Peggy Cummins’s randy carnival sharpshooter to her besotted employer before ditching the sideshow for a life of illicit hot-blooded adventuring.

These defiant words – a declaration of rebellion and unabashed sexual desire – run through Gun Crazy with an electricity that threatens to set everything ablaze. To paraphrase Georges Bataille, if erotics are all about the violation of social norms and prohibitions, then nothing could be sexier than breaking the law. But inevitably, the flame dies out by the end of Joseph H. Lewis’s deliciously horned-up staple of pulpy mid-century film noir. Our lovers-on-the-lam are tragically undone by their own delirious thrill-seeking in an ending that takes its eroticism to morbid extremes, while also functioning as a winking metaphor for the disappointing nature of desire itself.

Released to little fanfare in 1950, Gun Crazy is perhaps Lewis’s masterwork, abounding in startlingly inventive style and eager to subvert Hollywood conventions with its amoral heroes and lascivious depictions of criminality. The film follows Bart Tare (John Dall), an ex-army man with a perverse fixation on guns. “I like shooting them. I feel awful good inside,” says young Bart to a judge who sends him away to reformatory school.

As an adult, he finds a soulmate in Laurie (Cummins), a ruthless blonde with a history of murder. Laurie leads her meek beau down a criminal path for no reason other than sheer titillation. It’s certainly not the first movie to show the exploits of outlaws in love, but it is singular among its contemporaries in its flagrant sexualisation of violence. “You were lookin’ at each other like a couple of wild animals. It almost scared me,” says the carnival barker when Laurie first meets Bart. “It should,” she retorts.

Though underappreciated in his time, Lewis would become a major inspiration for the directors of the French New Wave, in part because working in the low-budget sector allowed him the freedom to experiment and defy Production Code censors (at the price of resources and big-name studio glory). Famously, François Truffaut arranged a screening of Gun Crazy in 1964 for eventual Bonnie and Clyde writers Robert Benton and David Newman, who were unaware that the kinetic style they wanted their own outlaw story to imitate did not originate in France, but Hollywood’s B-movie backlots.

Peggy Cummins as Laurie and John Dall as Bart in Gun Crazy

Yet the iconic ending of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – with its outlaw heroes machine-gunned to death, bodies like puppets flailing in space – diverges from the sublimely surreal finale of Gun Crazy. Romantically, but foolishly, choosing to stick together after a heist goes awry, the lovers flee to the wilderness near Bart’s childhood home, bringing him full circle to a cherished place where he spent summers with his best friends Dave and Clyde.

What goes up must come down – sexual connotation intended. After such frenzied, spectacular escapades – the killing of innocents and multiple high-speed getaways – it’s as if Bart and Laurie have burned through all their fuel. First their car breaks down, with sputtering noises of mechanical death. On foot, they race through the forest, their bodies aching, exhausted, begging for rest. But they cannot stop. The barking of police dogs nearby pushes them to their physical limits, while their faces, contorted and panicked, betray a primal fear for their lives.

Night falls, and the couple lie hiding in the tall grass of a swamp shrouded in fog, lending a dreamlike, purgatorial quality to their final moments. They are phantoms, beginning their passage into a spiritual realm. Veteran cinematographer Russell Harlan captures the duo in close-up, with Laurie leaning on Bart as he rests belly-up. Their faces glistening with dirt and sweat, they might as well be in bed, whispering sweet nothings to one another in a drained, post-coital embrace. “Bart, it’s so good to be so close to you,” Laurie murmurs. If the whole movie is one big sex act, this is that empty, dazed feeling after the orgasm, the little death.

The thick white mist all around them creates the illusion of privacy, but the voices of Dave and Clyde – now a reporter and sheriff – penetrate these walls. They entreat their old pal to surrender. Neither we nor the partners in crime see the hunters; their eyes dart around desperately. Laurie decides to go down guns blazing, but Bart kills his sweetheart to save his friends from harm. At the sound of Bart firing, invisible bullets rain on our hero. The camera pulls back in a final crane shot; it’s a spectral consummation of love, their corpses hidden in the mist of the long grass.

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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