Perennially undervalued, Joseph H. Lewis receives a single paragraph in Andrew Sarris’ canonical The American Cinema (relegated to the expressive esoterica category alongside Andre de Toth, Allan Dwan, Jacques Tourneur, etc.). Sarris at least has the good sense to give a special mention to Gun Crazy, which he declares Lewis’ “one enduring masterpiece… a subtler and more moving evocation of American gun cult than the somewhat overrated Bonnie and Clyde.” Sarris is right on both counts; a perhaps apocryphal story follows that in 1964 Francois Truffaut arranged a screening of Gun Crazy for the screenwriters of Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Benton and Davis Newman. Seated in the front row for that screening was none other than Jean Luc Godard, who presumably had encountered Lewis’ film before embarking on his own Breathless four years prior. Gun Crazy DNA is all over the Nouvelle Vague, with its stylish, bric-a-brac mise en scène, bursts of documentary realism, the use of lightweight sound recording equipment, and an emphasis on sex and death as inextricably connected. Call it a kind of romanticized doom. Anyway, when Benton later heard that Sarris preferred Gun Crazy to the finished version of Bonnie and Clyde, Benton admitted that “maybe he’s right.” (Thanks to Richard Brody for this anecdote.)
Lewis’ most acclaimed film is a rollicking beast, a psychologically loaded time bomb of fetishized lust and violence, with two characters who have barely managed to sublimate themselves and their desires into polite society before finally exploding in a fit of apocalyptic bloodshed. Gun-as-phallic symbol, intimations of sexual potency, and murderous greed all simmer beneath the aw-shucks nice-guy facade of Bart Tare (John Dall) and his one true love, the sharpshooting femme fatale Laurie Starr (a beguiling Peggy Cummins). Introduced as a young boy breaking into a hardware store to steal a gun, which he covets above all else, Bart is shipped off first to reform school and then the military. He’s obsessed with guns, but not with killing; he’s got a thing about control, but no murderous intent. Released from active duty (it’s implied that Bart’s refusal to shoot living things has made him virtually useless to the military apparatus), Bart returns to his hometown and rekindles relationships with his older sister and childhood pals. On a trip to a traveling carnival, Bart lays eyes on Laurie, dolled up in a skintight outfit and firing guns with pinpoint accuracy. He challenges her to a sharpshooting contest, and it’s love at first sight. Laurie’s handler and potential romantic partner, Packett (Berry Kroeger), is wary of Bart, and the two eventually have it out. Bart won’t kill him, but he scares him, and Bart and Laurie leave the carnival to strike out on their own. But Laurie has expensive tastes, and Bart’s savings run out quickly. Laurie makes it clear that she wants cash, and fast. She wants nice things and isn’t afraid to take them, and if Bart won’t help her get them, she’ll find someone who will. That’s when the robberies start.
Lewis had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years, making low-budget quickies before finally getting his first critical and commercial success, the 1945 woman-in-trouble thriller My Name is Julia Ross. In the book Who the Devil Made It?, Lewis tells Peter Bogdanovich in no uncertain terms that Julia Ross was his first “important” picture, and that its success opened many doors for him. Gun Crazy was still a lower-budget affair, if not quite of the poverty row variety, but its quick shooting schedule allowed Lewis plenty of room for experimentation. To hear him tell it, the famous single-take bank robbery was really a solution to a problem — the scene took up 17 pages of the script and would’ve taken days to shoot. By mapping it out into one long, unbroken sequence, they instead filmed it in three hours and wound up ahead of schedule and under budget. It’s a remarkable scene, the camera placed in the backseat behind Laurie, who’s driving, with Bart in the passenger seat. They arrive in a small town and drive down main street, fighting traffic and looking for parking in real time. They stop, and the camera stays in the car with Laurie as Bart exits, before she too leaves the car to distract an unexpected beat cop who has arrived on the scene. Bart eventually runs out of the bank, the couple hop back in the car, and make a speedy exit back out of town. Lewis describes acquiring a stretched-out Cadillac for the scene, allowing himself, a cameraman, and two sound men to be inside the vehicle with another couple of sound men strapped on top of the car. There’s a famous dolly in on Cummins’ face during this scene, which Lewis details to Bogdanovich with glee at his own ingenuity. They placed boards in the back of the car, greased them up, and then sat the camera on them, allowing the cameraman to physically push the camera forward toward Cummins. It’s remarkable stuff.
Bogdanovich quotes Lewis as saying, “I signed my name to every frame of film.” While most of the classic Hollywood generation would downplay their own artistry in favor of by-the-books craftsmanship, Lewis was very open about wanting to make beautiful images (of course, the likes of Howard Hawks, John Ford, and myriad others also made beautiful images; they just spoke about it differently). His nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” speaks to his propensity to liven up the frame with bits of staging, placing cameras in unusual places to give some oomph to a scene. But he was also a master of camera movement, dollying and tracking through space while enclosing characters via stark architecture or shooting through mirrors to create double images. He’d do anything for an effect, and the results were more often than not thrillingly alive. Gun Crazy pulsates with energy throughout its brief runtime, careening through plot on its way to an inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion. The baroque trappings of the carnival give way to the docu-realism of the robbery scenes, which in turn transform into a poetic, expressionistic journey through misty forests and fog-shrouded fields of tall grass. Bart and Laurie meet their end in a dream state turned bad. Not just a great noir, Gun Crazy is also a great bit of doomed l’amour fou.