Contextualising Gun Crazy

Emilia Rolewicz

This film noir by Joseph H Lewis stars John Dall as Bart, a skilled shooter whose firearm fixation started in childhood, but due to a traumatic experience he now fears the lethal potential of the weaponry as much as he is obsessed by it. Bart meets and falls for the trigger-happy Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummings) at her shooting-show in a travelling circus where she displays her own abilities, rivalling Bart’s. Laurie eventually convinces Bart to run away with her and combine their crazy gun skills, carrying out bank robberies as a way to make fast cash.

Obsession is integral to the dynamics of Gun Crazy, and almost any film noir. The figure of the femme fatale sets out to intoxicate the male lead with her sexuality and irresistible charms, controlling the man’s gaze and wittingly fuelling their obsession so he will carry out their dark biddings. Think of Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity who slyly convince unsuspecting men to just assist them in a little causal mariticide. Similarly, in Gun Crazy, Laurie gets Bart to break his moral code and shoot up corner shops with her, fuelling Laurie’s taste for fast-living and instant dollars. Bart becomes the Bonnie to her Clyde.

Like many men in film noir Bart is easily reeled in by the sexuality he fears, but which the femme fatale inhabits comfortably and uses to her advantage. Bart’s fear of guns can be read as symptomatic of his psychosexual instability, as with most film noirs, Freudian imagery is rife. In one of the very first frames we see of Laurie she points a gun right at Bart, which we as viewers see from his point of view, she pulls the trigger on the (thankfully) unloaded gun; Laurie both stares back at and shatters the obsessive male gaze. Whereas Bart, when push comes to shoot, is instead paralysed with dread, embodying a whimpering anti-masculinity overshadowed by Laurie’s agency and pluck.

Laurie is obsessed with running fearlessly from one heist to the next, but Bart’s obsession is more aligned with running from the crimes they commit, and hoping for an end. In his essay ‘Notes on Film Noir’ Paul Schrader positions neurotic noir males like Bart as part of the third cycle of film noir, the phase of “psychotic action” and “suicidal impulse.” Gone are the lone wolves or sleek P.I. Humphrey Bogarts of noir’s past. Gun Crazy reveals the more psychologically unhinged and prone-to-obsession protagonists, such as Bart, whose love for Laurie transcends even the cinematic language that shows their moral separateness. Often the architecture around them such as parts of cars and buildings fragment them visually, but still they remain thick as thieves.

Film noir has an inherent obsession with the past, rooted in how the style has been seen as a delayed reaction to The Depression, as during that time films didn’t often reflect the dark mood felt by many people in America. It’s not unusual for noir characters, like Bart, to become caught up or held back by their past. The beginning of Gun Crazy begins in Bart’s childhood, with a disturbing animalistic encounter that leads to his anxiety surrounding the violence guns can cause. At the end of the film, when Bart is fleeing from law-enforcement, he ends up back in a similar natural environment and confronts a near-repeat of his childhood trauma. The cyclical nature of Gun Crazy, and how throughout the film Bart’s past subconsciously has a hold over him, reflects film noir’s obsession with characters who have no future. In the words of Marlene Dietrich at the end of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which many believe punctuates the final film noir cycle in a self-reflexive way: “Your future’s all used up.”

Another obsession many film noir fatales and outsiders have is with borders. In Gun Crazy, by nature of the criminal life they choose, Bart and Laurie are always on the run; never fulfilling the 1940s/50s marital ideal of settling down and having a family. Their restless lifestyle takes them from town to town, and over the California state border where they risk their stolen goods being found in the backseat. The obsessive need to be on the move is indicative of the instability characters in film noir tend to inhibit, but when Bart and Laurie decide on a more permanent escape spot they mark the X on Mexico. As with other noirs, such as Out of the Past, Mexico is seen as an idyll in which Bart and Laurie believe their troubles won’t follow them to. However, as film noirs tend to be rat-traps of deception, manipulation, moral and physical destruction; plus more fun things we enjoy seeing our characters go through, crossing the Mexican border doesn’t always prove to be a salve to their wounds of crime and disorder.

The automobile itself in Gun Crazy becomes a vehicle, not just for Laurie’s road-raging getaways with Bart, but also for including us in the action. In one of the most famous scenes Laurie waits outside a store which Bart is burglarising, ready to drive the get-away car. The camera’s eye, and therefore ours, are placed inside the car, and through one long take we experience the suspense of the wait and excitement of the chase. We, quite literally, take a back-seat, positioned right in the centre of the manic, delinquent feat. In this way we become as obsessed as our anti-heroes in the crimes we now too feel implicated in; with a film like Gun Crazy, it’s impossible not to. Even if you’re not crazy about guns, you’ll be crazy about Gun Crazy.


Writen by Emilia Rolewicz for Broadway Cinema's Shots in the Dark festival.  Find more of Emilia's writing at @whiskeywhoreduh