Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Femmes Fatale

Films: Gun Crazy (Deadly is the Female), The Killers (1946)
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television (Gun Crazy), DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (The Killers).

There is a real draw for me to the genre of film noir. Noir is gritty, and while it may not be very realistic in many senses, it always has the feel of reality. This may simply be because it generally avoids the clichéd Hollywood-style happy ending. There aren’t good girls in film noir. Everyone is dangerous and everyone is looking out of him or herself. The central emotional state in film noir isn’t excitement or lust or fear; it’s selfishness. Everyone in a noir acts in his or her own self interests, and if that means killing someone, squealing on someone, or just standing back in the shadows while someone else takes a bullet, well, so be it.

The post-war years of the ‘40s and early ‘50s were the boom time for the genre. Falling right smack in the middle of that time frame is Gun Crazy (originally released under the equally noir-tastic title Deadly is the Female). It hits all of the highlights of the noir genre—criminal enterprise, a dangerous woman, shadows, death, cynicism, anger, lust, helplessness, existentialism, fatalism, and of course, selfishness—but differs in significant ways. Most films noir take place in decidedly urban settings where the shadows of tall buildings and the seamier parts of town can come into play. Gun Crazy takes place in Podunk, and ends in an open marshy area.

We start with Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn at this point), a gun-obsessed youth. He breaks the front window of a store and steals a couple of pistols from the inside only to be caught by the sheriff. This leads us to Bart’s criminal hearing where we learn more about the troubled youth. We learn that Bart has always been fascinated with the bang-bang. Early in his shooting career he kills a chick, and from that moment refuses to kill any living thing. But he can’t overcome his fascination with weaponry.

Bart is sent to reform school, and when he’s out, he has a career in the military teaching shooting to recruits. A few years of that convince him to move on, and he returns home, now an adult (and played by John Dall). He reunites with his boyhood friends Clyde Boston, (Harry Lewis), now the town sheriff and Dave Allister (Nedrick Young), now the editor of the local paper. The three head off to a carnival that has come to town, and Bart’s life forever changes.

It’s at the carnival where Bart encounters shooting sensation Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) dressed in full cowgirl regalia. She puts on a whale of an act—her shooting at targets is about half shooting skill and half pure sex. It’s one hell of an effective scene with her looking back at the audience in a way that suggests she’s as much a stripper as a gunslinger. Bart challenges her to a shoot-off, and bests her in a scene that is one of the most erotic things ever put on film. Put a gun in the hands of these two, and it’s pure sex.

This pure sexual tension is not missed on the carnival owner Packett (Berry Kroeger). Packett has designs of his own on Laurie, and more than that has something to hold over her—the fact that she was responsible for a death in St. Louis. Despite this, our two ill-fated lovers demand to be together. Both fired at the same time, they run off and get a quickie marriage. They enjoy some happy time together, and then suddenly the money has run out. With only their skill at shooting to fall back on, they quickly fall into a life of crime. We get a montage of robberies, and we also learn that they’re pretty much spending everything they get just to keep going.

One of the truly great shots in this film is the bank heist. Bank heists have been done to death in films like this, of course, but few were done in the way this one was. We don’t actually see the heist itself. Instead, the camera stays in the getaway car while Bart, dressed in his full carnival Wild West regalia, goes into the bank. Laurie stays in the car, then goes up and speaks with a police officer until Bart comes out and she disables the cop. They then flee, desperate to avoid pursuit. The whole scene is done in a single take with mainly improvised dialogue to keep it fresh, and it says more about the genre than any other scene I can think of.

Our anti-heroes are still low on cash, so they plan one last job—a payroll theft at a meat packing plant. Both get jobs there and they work up a way to get the money. But things go sour almost immediately, and their getaway involves gunfire and a couple of deaths. Now desperate and on the run with the whole country after them, they try to make a life for themselves only to find that they are constantly pursued. Eventually, they wind up back in Bart’s home town where they originally met—and now Bart has to deal seriously with his conviction against killing things.

I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice to say that this is film noir, so you shouldn’t expect sunshine and roses at the close.

What this film is, though, is pure sex and violence without showing us anything. Laurie is perhaps the greatest femme fatale around. She’s sexy, seductive, erotic, and pure menace. She tells Bart over and over that she’s no good, and that when she gets in trouble or nervous, she gets in a mood to kill things. We discover later in the film that the incident in St. Louis wasn’t an accident on stage—it was a hold-up she and Packett were working when she killed the man in question. Bart is a hell of a shot and good-hearted in the sense that he won’t kill anything. But he’s also powerless when it comes to Laurie, weak-willed, and probably a little thick. In short, he’s the perfect patsy for Laurie, the kind of guy who winds up in a film noir because he’s too lovestruck and too dumb to walk away from it.

Perhaps the greatest scene in the film, other than that single take bank heist, is when the two lovers part after the meat packing plant robbery. In separate cars and heading in separate directions, Bart turns around, stops, and rushes to her. They can’t bear to be apart from each other even if it virtually guarantees that they’ll be caught and killed.

I bought this DVD for $4.00. It’s worth a lot more than that. For as short as its running time is, Gun Crazy packs in the action, the sex, and the noir-y goodness like no other film.

Robert Siodmak’s version of The Killers is an interesting noir for anyone with any knowledge of Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name. The film takes its cue from the short story, and films virtually the entire contents of what Hemingway wrote in the first 8-10 minutes of the film. That’s where the original source material ends, but it’s where this one begins. The film instead takes the set up of two killers entering a diner and waiting for their target and posits an entire backstory, adds in a number of new characters, and gives us something that explains why these two strangers would show up in a town and bump off a gas station attendant.

That opening scene is almost literally Heminway’s story including actual dialogue. Hired guns named Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (Robert Conrad, still in the early stages of his eventual planetary bulk) arrive in town and head to a diner. The short story’s main character Nick Adams (an uncredited Phil Brown) is tied up with the diner’s cook. The men are looking for a man named Lund, who usually eats there. When he doesn’t show, the killers leave. Nick runs to warn the man, who decides that it’s not worth running—he once did something very bad and there’s no way out. Nick returns to the diner (this is where the short story ends), the bad guys arrive and shoot Lund.

The rest of this is the fancy of the screenwriter. We see the story from the point of view of Jim Reardon (or possibly Riordan, played by Edmond O’Brien), who is investigating the insurance claim of the dead man. He discovers that the beneficiary is a woman who works in a hotel, who remembers the dead man and a night when he trashed is room, screaming about a woman leaving him. This puts Reardon/Riordan (I’m going to pick one now) on the track of what must have happened.

Our dead guy is actually named Ole Andersen (Burt Lancaster), a former boxer-turned-crook and most commonly known as the Swede. Reardon tracks down his boyhood friend, Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), the cop who eventually busted Ole back in the day. Reardon learns about a woman named Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), once the flame of a big-time crook named Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and then the main squeeze of Ole Andersen. He also manages to connect everything he knows about this trio to a few other crooks and the payroll robbery of a hat factory that occurred a number of years before. Coincidentally, his insurance company paid out on the robbery, and it’s Reardon’s job to see if he can get that money back.

Since this is a noir, it all comes down to the love of that dangerous dame, Kitty Collins. Ole Anderson loves her, Big Jim Colfax loves her, and the two of them can never get rid of this thing between them. Reardon starts to hone in on the actual crime and what went on around it. He finds Anderson’s old cellmate, Charleston (Vince Barnett), who starts him off by telling him about the meeting to plan the heist. This leads him to Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey), seriously wounded and raving about the score. Blinky leads him to Dum-Dum Clarke (Jack Lambert, who is seriously one of the most frightening ugly men ever to hold a gun on someone in a noir), which takes him back to Colfax and the dangerous Kitty.

In all of this, the common thread is the sad life of Ole Anderson and the lengths he went to for his femme fatale and the destruction of his life and many other lives because of it. The performances are great throughout, particularly for the criminal set. Lancaster is great in pretty much everything he touched, and Sam Levene is believable as a cop who wants to do something to set the record straight about his old pal.

Most importantly for me, this is the first Ava Gardner film I’ve seen where I really liked her portrayal of her character. She’s cool and menacing throughout, slinky and deadly and dangerous, the way the main female focus of a noir should be. The fact that she goes as pathetically bibbledy at the end of the film just as Mary Astor does at the end of The Maltese Falcon only adds to her cred here.

Hemingway’s short story gave this film a great set up, and Siodmak had the guts to take that set up with so many unanswered questions and give us a reason for everything to happen. Pure gold.

Why to watch Gun Crazy: It wastes no time getting to the good parts.
Why not to watch: The glorification of crime.

Why to watch The Killers (1946): It answers questions the more literary minded have had for years.
Why not to watch: Sometimes, those literary questions don’t really need answers.


  1. That is also the only fault I can find in The Killers. I am not sure I needed all the answers. There was a certain deliciousness to the mystique.

    1. I agree. It's a hell of a film and I didn't expect it at all going in.

  2. I cannot fault the style in Gun Crazy at all. You are of course right about the sexual element on stage and the femme fatale supreme, but I was really impressed with the filming and especially the setup of the filming. The camera is so inclusive, we are really there, and it and so much tension to the film.

    By the way, your link to Adam's Rib is a dud. It leads to All about Eve instead.

    1. I'll check the link--thanks.

      I love Gun Crazy for everything, but the use of camera more than just about anything else.