Film Noir Series: Gun Crazy (1950)
Maltese Falcon is, and probably deserves to be, considered the best of the noir style, at leaf of the films we have seen so far. Gun Crazy, however, is an altogether more electric work, charged with sex, desire, and audacious camera work. Joseph Lewis, the director, had the luxury of a thirty-day shooting schedule–five times as much time as Ulmer had for Detour–so it is in a different class of B movie despite its thrifty budget. I can say that it is my favourite of the films noirs we have encountered so far, mainly for its visual ambition.
For example, our thieving protagonist couple, played by John Dall and Peggy Cummins, performs a quick bank job. The entire operation is shot from the back of the car in a single take, trapping us in the back of the car like a hostage as we watch in suspense as the job is pulled off. Another notable visual touch is the use of wide-angle closeup shots, distorting characters’ faces and filling the frame with their often tortured, sometimes deliriously pleasured expressions. Befitting the explosive fetishism of the characters–hence the title–the focus of the film is on uncontrollable desire and the sticky situations it can land you in. This is accompanied by a heap of blatant Freudian symbolism and thematics. If you want a film about how a lack of strong parenting and childhood sexual fixation can lead a man to murder, Gun Crazy is your fix.
Other than the aforementioned closeups and the one-take heist scene, another scene struck me as both beautiful filmmaking and sly social commentary. During the climactic “one last job,” a raid on the payroll of the Armour meatpacking plant, John Dall’s character is tracked by a dolly shot walking past row upon row upon row of stone-cold porcine corpses. He walks up the stairs, and the scene cuts to another shot of him walking in the same direction, this time through a modern office, striding past row on row of desks and bustling workers. Not only is this sequence a visceral visualization of modern corporate alienation, but it cloaks the story in a shroud of death that never departs after that scene. After that, of course, Peggy Cummins’ character commits the fateful murders that send them pinballing around the country on the run, ultimately pushing their relationship to an ultimate extreme, resulting in their deaths. It’s a masterful noir and a great film in its own right, as well as far more propulsive and erotic in its exploration of the femme fatale and issues of violence than the others we’ve seen so far.