Installation view, What Price Hollywood at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 30–June 15, 2019) (photo by Denis Doorly © 2019, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“Until Gun Crazy I’d played pretty blonde types, so I loved the idea of this character,” Welsh born Irish actress Peggy Cummins was quoted saying in The Guardian, in 2017 (the year of her death), about her role in the American B-film by Joseph H. Lewis. Gun Crazy (1950) was one of those small pictures that Hollywood Studios churned out on the side while producing splashier movies, often within the same studio complex. But then Lewis wasn’t just an ordinary B-movie director. Gun Crazy went on to inspire young French filmmakers of La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave), and later served as an inspiration for Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

The film’s appeal is mostly thanks to its breathtaking relentlessness: A story of a wide-eyed yet unsettled young man, Bart Tare (John Dall), whose greatest passion, from tender age, are guns. Today the title sends shivers down one’s spine — we are, after all, a gun-crazy nation, and gun-related crimes often occupy newspaper front pages. Yet Lewis’s tale is also tender: When we first meet him, Bart is still a schoolboy; he breaks a window of a local shop and steals a gun. He simply must have it, he tells the judge in a juvenile court. His classmates relate how Bart could never hurt a living thing — he had gone hunting with them, and had refused to kill a mountain lion. This passionate insistence on goodness, on decency, against poverty and fatherlessness, fuels the film’s main drama.

Bart may have never committed a crime had he not come across Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). Annie is a roadshow star, a gun girl with a perfect aim. One night she loses to Bart, who outshoots her, and the two immediately fall in love. Their eloping is at first liberation. Bart has behind him reform school, and he’s restless, without a future, unmoored. Annie is clever and tough as nails and, as it turns out, has a clear idea what she wants: Money, since she was always dirt-poor. It’s but a quick leap to robbing banks, against Bart’s fear of hurting anyone. The two are tied — to each other, and to their fate as notorious bank robbers, whose audacity, but also forlorn regrets and fear, grow as they move state to state.

The film may have been a quaint display of American decency and small-town folksiness — with his ingénue bright face, John Dall as Bart fits this idea to a T — were it not for the electrifying and darker, more complex presence of Cummins. Her Annie is capable of deepest love, and it’s clear that she yearns for the wholesomeness that Bart represents, yet her temperament is gritty, pessimistic, yes, perhaps even greedy. Lewis quickly shows us why confident Annie is so madly driven: When the two run after their last (and fatal) stint, they briefly visit the farm where Annie grew up. Her parents are strung-up, and the family home is not just impoverished in the material sense, but emotional, existential as well. Annie simply will not have it. If she can’t be someone, she’d rather be dead. In this she is unlike most heroines portrayed on the American screen in the 1940s and ‘50s. On the contrary, B-movies often showed women as mere appendices to men: starlets, tragic sentimental heroines, love interests, sidekicks, exotic, weak, you name it. Annie doesn’t fit into any of these rubrics, because like Bart, but with more intentionality and daring, she simply must have things. No doubt, in her desire to get what she wants she can be manipulative. And yet, she is more articulate than Bart — in fact, more articulate, direct, and demanding than most women who sprung up in the French New Wave cinema that followed her (at least in films directed by men).

This points to a clear limitation that women actors faced in cinema.  Cummins is a case in point, as The Guardian article summed up, “A career that had promised so much for Cummins was reduced to small parts in big films and big parts in small pictures.” Gun Crazy is such a small picture, yet it’s intensely watchable, both for its quick-paced, vivid cinematography, and its melodramatic yet gritty writing, with dark flashes of humor. It’s a film whose posterior fame and delight only intensify as it ages.

Gun Crazy plays at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan) during What Price Hollywood film series on April 14 and April 19.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.