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Gun Crazy went where Hollywood wouldn’t dare

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Oscar-nominated Trumbo and the Coens’ ’50s-set Hollywood farce Hail, Caesar! have us thinking back on films by or featuring artists blacklisted during the Red Scare.

Gun Crazy (1950)

Before there was a New Hollywood, there was Gun Crazy. Joseph H. Lewis’ kinetic, psychosexual B-movie (alternate title: Deadly Is The Female) laid many of the creative foundations of the American cinema of the 1970s, though it took a round trip to Europe for the movie to develop a reputation at home. Back then, it was the young French critics coming out of the Paris film club scene who seemed to get what was so interesting and special about American movies—better than almost anyone in America did, it seems. And they idolized Gun Crazy for its darkness, its raw emotions, and its technical and formal innovation—the most famous example of the latter being a bank robbery sequence presented as a single take from the inside of the getaway car, shot guerrilla-style in the center of a small town, with largely improvised dialogue and multiple camera movements within the vehicle. (This seemed impossible to do with the bulky equipment available at the time; Lewis’ ingenious solution was to get a limo and remove everything except the front seats.)

Those same French critics would go on to become the directors of French New Wave, often cribbing from Gun Crazy, a movie that distilled the undercurrents of pulp into a story about an ex-Army marksman (John Dall) and a carnival sharpshooter (Peggy Cummins) who fall in love and become outlaws, united by their lifelong, flagrantly eroticized obsession with guns. And the New Wave were, in turn, idolized by a generation of aspiring American filmmakers, most of whom didn’t realize that the edginess that they associated with the French was actually American in origin. In 1964, when screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton started developing the project that would eventually become Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde—the hit that kicked off the New Hollywood era—they thought that there wasn’t a single American director who could do the story right. Instead, they arranged meetings with two of their New Wave idols, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who were both visiting New York. The directors turned the script down; instead, they arranged for the writers to see a private screening of Gun Crazy.

Part of what made the New Hollywood seem like such a cathartic moment was that many of its best-known films appeared to be letting out things that had long been repressed—kept out of the studio back lots, sometimes finding a home in the low-budget B-films. (“Your cock’s never been so hard” was the motivation Lewis would give Dall on set, and it sure comes across that way.) So perhaps it’s appropriate that Gun Crazy, which represented cinema at its most brazen for the French and for the Americans who learned from them, actually came out of Hollywood’s most notorious repressive purge: the blacklist. Not even Lewis, one of the boldest and most accomplished stylists of the classic B-movie, knew that this story of sexualized violence and criminal l’amour fou was written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who used a front to sell the script; his authorship would remain a secret until 1992.

Given that Trumbo was facing a stint in federal prison for contempt of court (which he started serving a few months after Gun Crazy’s release), it’s easy to read a broader anger in the movie’s unchecked urges and frustrations, which combined with Lewis’ freedom of form—confident camera moves, long takes, shrouds of shadow and fog, macabre eroticism—to create one of the great works of art of the American B-movie. It lets it all out.

Availability: Gun Crazy is available on DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally through iTunes, VUDU, or Google Play.