Gun Crazy (1950) Starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins

Noir Alley’s host Eddie Muller introduced 1950’s “Gun Crazy” as a film that is so singular and extraordinary and “weirdly ahead of its time.” We’ll suppose Eddie knows more than us on that score. After all, he wrote a book on the film’s history: “Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema.” Nevertheless, with the reluctant criminal bit, we could not help but be reminded of 1948’s “They Live by Night,” having just watched that on Noir Alley very recently. Of course, there are differences. What motivates Bart Tare to commit crime in “Gun Crazy” is far different from Bowie’s motivations. Bart Tare, however, is not a misguided kid like Bowie who never had any support system. After Bart got out of reform school, he did a stint in the U.S. Army. Maybe it was like Bluey the Clown said, “some people are born dumb.”

Russ Tamblyn played Bart as a 14-year-old youngster when the film opens up. Russ was going by “Rusty” back then. He was about 16 when the film was released in 1950. It was 4 years before he played Gideon in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and 10 years before he starred as Riff, the leader of the Jets, in “West Side Story.” Bart breaks a window in a hardware store, steals a guns and immediately gets caught by the Sheriff. In court, his sister Ruby insists that despite his lifelong fascination with guns, Bart wouldn’t hurt a fly. She recounts a story of how traumatized he was after he killed a baby chick with a BB gun when he was 7. Bart’s friends, Clyde and Dave, back her up with a camping trip tale of how Bart refused to kill a mountain lion, even though it had a bounty on it.

Russ Tamblyn as young Bart Tare in

Russ Tamblyn as young Bart Tare, one of his early roles when he was a teenager.

All Bart has to say is he had to have the gun after school officials took away the one he bought and paid for himself. So it’s off to reform school and the next time we see Bart, he’s a grown man who just got out of the Army. Ruby has kids (one looks like Russ Tamblyn, though Bart himself now looks like John Dall), Dave’s a newspaper man and Clyde’s a deputy sheriff.

Clyde and Dave take Bart to a carnival, where we learn that Bart is even more of a crack shot than ever. His job in the Army was teaching recruits how to shoot. Bart meets his female counterpart (he thinks) at a sideshow featuring sharpshooter, Annie Laurie Starr.

After showing off her prowess, her manager, Packie, issues a challenge to the audience. If anyone wants to put up $50 and can outshoot his “Starr,” they will win $500. Part of it is wearing a crown with matches. Annie Laurie lights all but one on Bart’s. He lights them all on hers and wins. Bart gets a job with the circus and takes up with Annie Laurie. Bluey Bluey the Clown tries to warn him to steer clear of his dream girl. “Some guys were born smart about women,” Bluey observes, “and some were born dumb.” Bart jokes that some guys were born clowns but Bluey flatly tells him he was born dumb. Outside, Packie also tells him to stay away from Annie Laurie. He has a prior claim. Packie goes to Annie Laurie’s trailer. They argue and we learn that she killed a man. Packie has held it over her head ever since, but Annie Laurie is sick of it and him. He pleads with her that he’ll make big money. She coldly says that will never happen: “You’re a two-bit guy.” Enter Bart to shoot up the mirror just when Packie gets handy with Annie Laurie. He fires them both and they run off to a Justice of the Peace, but not before Bart confesses to his reform stint. This little bit was quite amusing since we know now that Annie Laurie has done much worse. She did tell Bart he wasn’t getting any bargain with her and she would try to be a good person.

Their attempt at living the straight life gets them no where fast and certainly not fast enough for Laurie (as Bart now calls her). She decides that if Bart won’t help her pull off some heists so she can indulge her taste for the finer things in life, he better kiss her goodbye. Bart can neither let go of her or talk her out of her thieving plans so off they go, to hold up liquor stores, gas stations, whatever.

The inevitable results of getting away with little heists coupled with an insatiable desire for money such as Laurie’s soon kick in. Their targets escalate, people get hurt and Packie resurfaces to identify them in the papers. Bart’s guilt gnaws away at him and he wants out. Stuck waiting out a Montana snowstorm, he plaintively asks his femme fatale:

“Didn’t it ever occur to you that once we started, we could never ask anybody for help– no matter if we were dying– for the rest of our lives? We’re all alone, always will be. Didn’t you ever give it a thought?”

Well, of course not, buddy. That never occurs to greedy thrill-seekers. That was supposed to occur to you. That’s why it was hard for this viewer to buy Bart’s tortured soul act. I know the romance is touted big-time in this film. Peggy Cummins is certainly gorgeous and compelling in her role, but it would have been so much more intense and passionate if Bart wasn’t so, well, wimpy. And yeah, the film was originally entitled “Deadly is the Female,” but even under that title, I don’t think I would have felt any sympathy for “poor” Bart.

Back to the story, Laurie agrees that she’s had enough too, but convinces him that one more big job will set them up for the good life in Mexico (Bowie was headed there, too, in that 1948 one). Nothing like pressing your luck but “one last job” is just the kiss of death in noir, and it’s all downhill from there.

There are more clips from “Gun Crazy” and even some fan-made trailers on Youtube and the film will be available on TCM on Demand until 7/23/17.

Notes on the Cast:
Bart: John Dall – Before this film, he starred in Hitchcock’s “The Rope” (1948), based on the Leopold & Loeb case. Co-star Farley Granger was the queasy one.
Annie Laurie: Peggy Cummins – She is also known for her role in “Curse of the Demon” (1957)
Clyde: Harry Lewis – Had a role in “Key Largo” (1948), the ’50s was his busiest decade as a character actor
Dave: Nedrick Young – was nominated for 2 Oscars as co-writer of “The Defiant Ones” (1958) and “Inherit the Wind” (1960). Won for “The Defiant Ones” under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas (yes, the infamous blacklist)
Ruby: Anabel Shaw – continued to act through the ’50s, primarily on TV.
Packett (aka Packie): Berry Kroeger – a prolific character actor on film and TV through the 1970s. Among the roles he played were Alexandre Dumas, Francisco Goya, Socrates and Benedict Arnold.

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3 Responses

  1. rhonda says:

    I finally got to watch the movie this afternoon, VJ. It was entertaining enough but I enjoyed Born to Kill much more, and Deadline at Dawn was my favorite of the 3 of them. You certainly hit the nail on the head (or the match on the crown lol), wimpy is the best word to describe Bart. Not a very compelling character at all.

    • VJ says:

      lol, Rhonda, “the match on the crown” — good one. Idk why Eddie Muller made such a big deal over this film but I’m not sorry I watched it either.

      It’s very interesting to me to find out what else the actors were involved in, esp the supporting cast. Like the guy with the glasses — I would never have known about him co-writing the screenplays for The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind. I know it’s not exactly essential information to have, but I like it when I’m watching other films and a name turns up that I might otherwise not pay attention to.

  2. rhonda says:

    Thanks for the informative, interesting and comprehensive recap, VJ. Another movie that I wasn’t aware of and need to check out.