The narrative of stylish B-noir Gun Crazy is fairly straightforward: pathological gun lover Bart (John Dall) meets his match in Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a circus sharpshooter. The two embark on a vicious crime spree, as driven by their lust for each other as they are a gleeful urge to shoot everything in their path. But it’s the psychosexual and erotic dimensions of their pairing that prove most intriguing - not to mention their mutual salivation over their weapons. Shot in extreme close-ups and feverishly crooked angles, Lewis matches the neuroses of his characters with the jumpy vigour of his camera. The couple’s gun fetishism is the signpost not simply for danger but also for some pretty self-evident phallic symbolism. “It isn’t killing that interests him – it’s something else about guns,” a woman remarks about Bart in a suggestive tone. Lewis and uncredited screenwriter Dalton Trumbo are clearly interested in the popular Freudian ideas of the era. Killing may not interest Bart, but there are certainly homoerotic undertones in his caress of a six-gun. Laurie, on the other hand, is more than happy to do the killing - even when Bart demurs, she is bloodthirsty.
The central conceit of Lewis’ film is a woman who is utterly out of control, breaking through the era’s ideals of femininity by her actively desirous - even obsessive - pursuit of her prey, both criminal and sexual. Weak manhood or a lack of fifties-style masculine virtue presents one of the central problems of Gun Crazy; Bart is depicted as fundamentally spineless and soft, having some of the moral rectitude his lover lacks but none of the conviction to actually do the right thing. The alternative title is ‘Deadly is the Female’, fitting for a film so tied up in notions about women’s essential amorality. Annie is bad - she even warns Bart as much on their wedding night - and she bears that out throughout the film, with her doll-like beauty contorting into delirious pleasure at the sight of violence. Her character may be a figment of the male imagination, but seeing her salacious fixation on the most taboo behaviour is sort of thrilling, even by today’s standards. Bart succinctly defines the film’s sex and bloodshed modus operandi in one sentence to his wayward girl: ‘We’re like guns and ammunition - we go together.’
Christina Newland writes on Film and Culture, with work in the Guardian, Little White Lies, Sight & Sound and mubi Notebook.