Stylish and subversive, ‘Gun Crazy’ showcases Lewis’ talent

Gun Crazy/1950/King Brothers Productions/86 min.

Peggy Cummins at the TCM festival screening of “Gun Crazy” on Saturday. Photo by Jason Merritt

Peggy Cummins as Annie

It’s pretty much a given in film noir romance that red flags go unheeded and wake-up calls are ignored. An unforgettable example: the protagonist in Joseph H. Lewis’ groundbreaking noir “Gun Crazy” (1950) in which John Dall plays Bart Tare, a World War II vet who’s gifted with guns. After a circus clown tells Bart that he’s “dumb about women,” Bart simply shrugs and rushes off to do his femme fatale’s bidding, which in this case means robbing banks and living on the lam.

To be fair to Bart, however, this is a femme fatale like no other: rodeo performer Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) loves guns as much as Bart does but whereas he doesn’t want to kill anyone, she’s cool with that possibility. Blood-chilling and unfailingly bold, this svelte blonde ranks as one of the hardest women on the screen.

Cummins appeared last weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival’s screening of “Gun Crazy” and spoke with Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Muller described Cummins’ interpretation of Annie as “the most ferocious female performance in American cinema.”

Bart (John Dall) and Annie (Peggy Cummins) prefer guns to roses.

Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox brought Cummins to Hollywood in 1945 – she was 98 pounds and had an 18-inch waist, she said.

When the opportunity arose to portray a bad girl for Lewis, Cummins said she was ready. “I loved the idea of it. The tendency was then if you’re a bit short, blonde and reasonably pretty, you were always playing rather pretty-pretty little parts. But this was a meaty part. I always wanted to play all the Bette Davis parts and I was never offered one. She was too good.

“An actor is always so thrilled to get a chance to play against what their character may be or the sort of person they are.”

It was Cummins’ most famous part (Dall is best remembered for this picture and 1948’s “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock) and the film, as subversive as it is stylish, influenced directors for decades to come. In fact, it is one of the primary bridges between classic Hollywood movies and the French and American New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” from 1960 and 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” by Arthur Penn.)

On the run, playing it straight with some studious specs.

Director Lewis was a solid B-movie director and, with A-list status eluding him, he took advantage of the freedom lower-budget Bs offered to experiment, innovate and break cinematic rules. In his time he was underrated but, because of his inventive style, he was rediscovered and praised by American and French critics in the ’60s.

In “Gun Crazy” when the pair robs the first bank, Lewis shot on location and used real people to play the bystanders. And leading up to the crime, Lewis (via cinematographer Russell Harlan) uses one long, unbroken shot taken from the backseat of the getaway car, from the criminals’ point of view, immersing the audience in the robbers’ subjective reality. During this scene, said Cummins, she and Dall improvised the dialogue.

MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s finest scribes, wrote the screenplay based on a short story of Kantor’s. But when Trumbo was blacklisted, his work on this film was credited to Millard Kaufman.

Annie’s got some great lines, for example, when she explains her aspirations: “Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

Renamed “Deadly is the Female” for its British release, “Gun Crazy” is insanely good noir.

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Tense one-take ‘Silent House’ undercut by lack of depth

Silent House/2012/LD Entertainment, et al/88 min.

Does the average moviegoer care if a movie seems to be shot in one continuous take? Maybe, maybe not. To create the appearance of a one-take thriller, “Silent House,” directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, was filmed on one Canon 5D camera with two operators in 13 total shots.

Whether you know or care about tricky production, the point is to try to make you feel the fear of the main character Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) a girl who’s in for a bad night at her family’s dark, isolated, creaky, spooky (natch) summer home. “The continuous take in itself is really what builds the tension,” said Lau at a recent press day in Beverly Hills. “She’s trapped in terror.”

(Similarly, Alfred Hitchcock crafted the illusion of a continuous shot in his first color film, 1948’s “Rope,” starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger.)

Kentis and Lau (co-directors of 2003’s “Open Water”) remade “Silent House” from Gustavo Hernández’s “La Casa Muda” (2010), which was inspired by events that occurred in a Uruguayan village in the 1940s. For their version, Lau wrote a new script, working late at night and listening to Nine Inch Nails. In addition to Trent Reznor, the filmmakers said they drew inspiration from psychological thrillers like Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965).

“Silent House” also features Adam Trese and Eric Sheffer Stevens as Sarah’s father and uncle, and Julia Taylor Ross as a family friend, but ultimately it’s Olsen’s movie. Because she’s rarely offscreen, the film hinges on her presence and acting.

Expressive, vulnerable and luminous, Olsen is compelling to watch. “I felt like I was part of the editing process,” said Olsen at the press day. “It was like dancing with the DP [Igor Martinovic] and figuring out a rhythm.”

The drama hinges on a devastating secret, long hidden within the walls of this sinister summer home. Though “Silent House” is swift and slick, unfortunately, the twist that’s supposed to lend psychological depth feels clumsy and lame, like a thin slap of paint on a faded front door.

“Silent House” opens today nationwide.

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Farley Granger (1925-2011): A face born for film noir and a movie immortal

By Michael Wilmington

Farley Granger

Farley Granger, who died at 85 on March 27, was the darkly handsome, sensitive-looking lead in four indisputable noir classics: Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” (1949), Anthony Mann’s “Side Street” (1950), and by Alfred Hitchcock: “Rope” (1948) and “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Blessed (or sometimes cursed) with pretty-boy looks, dark curly hair and an expression that could vary from bruised innocence and outright anguish to wary bemusement and dissolute sadism, Granger became a Hollywood movie star at 18, right out of North Hollywood High, when Samuel Goldwyn decided to sign him and groom him.

The teenager was cast in two Lewis Milestone World War II movies, “North Star” (1943) and “The Purple Heart” (1944). Goldwyn signed him again when Granger returned from WWII service in 1948.

It’s his noirs that make Farley Granger a movie immortal. We remember him best as the murderous but conscience-plagued college boy modeled on thrill-killer Nathan Leopold in “Rope”; as the desperate young husband caught in a web of crime in “Side Street”; as the bank-robbing outlaw, Bowie, part of a Bonnie-and-Clyde team with Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie in “They Live By Night” (O’Donnell also co-starred with him in “Side Street”); and as socially ambitious tennis star Guy Haines, bedeviled by the persistent “criss-cross” killer, Bruno Anthony (the magnificently deranged Robert Walker), in Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Strangers on a Train.”

After a minor noir “The Naked Street” and a lush period crime drama “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” (both 1955), Granger returned far less often to the big screen, though he remained a permanent part of Hollywood’s historical landscape.

And of the international film landscape. One of his finest performances was as the handsome, seductive and amoral Austrian Army officer, Lt. Franz Mahler, the wastrel who ruins Alida Valli’s life, in Luchino Visconti’s great operatic Italian period drama from 1954 “Senso” – a role that Marlon Brando had wanted and read for.

(“Senso” has just been released in a splendid Criterion edition, complete with a documentary, interviews and a bonus disc of the English-language version, “The Wanton Contessa,” with Granger’s voice.)

Farley Granger starred in "Side Street" from 1950 directed by Anthony Mann.

Sensitive or troubled in most of his famous parts, Granger may have suffered in ’50s Hollywood, a time and place where his bisexuality – hinted at in his “Rope” and “Strangers” roles – could be something of a career killer. (Among his lovers: “Rope’s” screenwriter Arthur Laurents, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner.) [Read more...]

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