A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Annotated Pauline Kael¹: Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy
Annie Laurie Starr: Peggy Cummins
Barton Tare: John Dall
Packett: Berry Kroeger
Judge Willoughby: Morris Carnovsky
Ruby Tare Flagler: Anabel Shaw
Clyde Boston: Harry Lewis
Dave Allister: Nedrick Young
Bart Tare (age 14): Russ Tamblyn
Bluey-Bluey: Stanley Prager
Miss Wynn: Virginia Farmer
Miss Augustine Sifert: Anne O'Neal

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: MacKinlay Kantor, Dalton Trumbo (credited to Millard Kaufman)
Based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Production design: Gordon Wiles
Film editing: Harry W. Gerstad
Music: Victor Young

Gun Crazy   Originally called Deadly Is the Female. (1949)² -- Peggy Cummins and John Dall in a tawdry³ version of the Bonnie and Clyde⁴ story. Cummins is a really mean broad,⁵ whose partner is her desperately eager victim.⁶ In its B-picture way, it has a fascinating crumminess.⁷ With Morris Carnovsky, Berry Kroeger, Annabelle Shaw, and Don Beddoe.⁸ Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, from a screenplay based on MacKinlay Kantor's SatEvePost story, and credited to Kantor and Millard Kaufman. Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted at the time, later revealed that he wrote the script and persuaded Kaufman to let his name be used. Produced by Frank and Maurice King; released by United Artists. b & w 
-- from 5001 Nights at the Movies, 1982
¹From time to time, maybe, I thought it might be fun to break format and reprint some of Pauline Kael's reviews as a basis for my own reactions to specific movies I've just watched. Why Kael? Because she's still synonymous with film criticism from her heyday as the New Yorker's chief film critic in the 1970s and '80s. Some of her critiques no longer seem on point -- I don't value Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) or Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) nearly as highly as she does, and I think more highly of "art-house" directors like Michelangelo Antonioni than she does -- but they are always provocative even when dated.

²It was made in the spring of 1949 but not released until January 1950.

³I wouldn't call Gun Crazy "tawdry" in any sense of the word. Its production values are solid: Russell Harlan was a first-rate cinematographer, with six Oscar nominations (though no wins); film editor Harry W. Gerstad won his first Oscar in 1950 for Champion (Mark Robson, 1949) and another for High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952); and composer Victor Young was nominated 19 times and won (posthumously) for Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson, 1956). Even when it ventures into sleazy locations like the carnival where Bart meets Laurie, the sleaze is kept to a minimum.

⁴An obvious comparison after the 1967 Arthur Penn film, though there's not much evidence that anyone connected with that movie had seen Gun Crazy, which fell into obscurity until auteurist critics discovered it.

⁵Granted, she's a killer, which Bart isn't, but as "mean broads" go, Laurie is really something of a softie: She stands by her man even after their initial decision to go their separate ways after the meat-packing plant robbery, and she could have ditched Bart at any time.

⁶Yes, this description of Bart works, even though I don't think John Dall and the screenwriters put together a wholly convincing character. Would any guy who had gone through reform school and the army really be so naïve as to fall so hard for a carnival dame, no matter if she looks like Peggy Cummins? The problem lies mainly in the simplistic psychology of Bart's gun craziness: He loves them but doesn't realize what they're really for other than shooting at bottles and tin cans. You'd think he'd be smart enough to realize that armed robbery is going to to lead to someone's getting hurt.

⁷Kael was never impressed with film technique as such, which is what so many of us find fascinating about Gun Crazy. It makes brilliant use of locations like the Armour meat-packing plant (actually in Los Angeles, not Albuquerque), and the long take, shot from the back seat of the car, in which Laurie distracts a cop while Bart commits a robbery, is breathtaking. It's also notable for the actual driving scenes -- most B-pictures would resort to process screens to show what's outside the car. There's nothing "crummy" about these sequences. I think the B-picture label occurs to Kael mainly because the producers, the King brothers, specialized in cheapies, and this is the only film by director Joseph H. Lewis that still gets much respect from anyone other than hardcore cinéastes. Still, it was tapped for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 1998 on the strength of its later reputation.

⁸Don Beddoe? A familiar character actor but he just has an uncredited bit as "Man from Chicago" in the film. More interesting is the appearance of Russ Tamblyn as the young Bart Tare. Tamblyn is one of the few child stars who survived adolescence for a later career: He's best known for his athletic dancing in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954) and West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961) and later for playing Dr. Lawrence Jacoby in David Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series. The problem is that because we know the grownup Tamblyn, it's clear that the kid couldn't grow up to look like John Dall. But nobody knew that at the time, just as nobody knew that Mickey Rooney wouldn't grow up to look like Clark Gable when he played the younger version of Blackie Gallagher in Manhattan Melodrama (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934).

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