March 23, 2010
The Derelict Goes to Dark Street: GUN CRAZY (Joseph H Lewis, 1950)
This week's "Dark Street" feature is GUN CRAZY!
Meet Bart. Bart likes guns.
Meet Laurie. Laurie likes guns too.
Bart likes Laurie.
He really likes Laurie.
And Laurie really likes Bart.
That, my friends, in a nutshell, is GUN CRAZY. The story of two crazy kids in love.
Laurie and Bart are crazy about guns and they're crazy about each other. They're gun crazy, but they're love crazy too. Or to put it more accurately, they're lust crazy. And their lust is so intense it becomes a kind of love, perverse though it may be. At one point, another character in the film says Bart and Laurie look at each other "like a couple of animals." Their lust/love is primal, dark, powerful. Frankly, it's kinda hot. I think GUN CRAZY is one of the sexiest (and most perverse) movies of all time.
So Bart and Laurie run away together and do what must be done when in love and in heat.
They're happy together for awhile. Until the money runs out. You see, Laurie wants thrills. She wants money and good times and fast living. She's been treated bad in life (so she says) and she's not willing to take it anymore. She's sick of eating in low down dives.
Bart's a misfit, a guy who can only do one thing really well in this life and that's shoot guns. Laurie's a misfit too. And she knows it. And she knows that the only way they can make it big in the world is to use their guns -- the guns that make them special, that give them power.
But Bart's an even bigger misfit. The one thing he can do better than anyone else is shoot a gun, but he refuses to kill. He's a master with a gun, but he refuses to do the one thing a gun was made for: shoot to kill.
The trouble for Bart and his soft heart is that he wants Laurie so bad, he'll do anything for her.
So what do a couple of sharp-shooters with a case full of guns do?
They shoot up gumball machines, of course. And rob convenience stores, gas stations, and banks.
They're a couple of stick-up artists and it gets Laurie her money and thrills. But it doesn't last. Even with the power of their guns, they're fighting a losing battle against the law. And when a stick-up goes wrong and Laurie starts shooting to kill, it's a losing battle for Bart too as he finds he's losing his soul.
GUN CRAZY is a crime movie. A film noir. We watch as two people go on a crime spree and cause mayhem, violence, and death wherever they go. We follow them on their journey from young lovers to wanted criminals and we love every minute of it. And what's more, we start to even root for them.
I'm struck every time I watch GUN CRAZY by how enthralled I am of Bart and Laurie. I get sucked into their relationship of lust and thrills. I clench my fists every time they have to sneak past the authorities or out run the cops. I want them to get away. I want them to make it. I'm in that strange position of rooting for the criminals. It's the position film lovers often find themselves in when watching a great crime film. It's the phenomenon of THE GODFATHER or STRANGERS ON A TRAIN or BONNIE AND CLYDE.
But how does GUN CRAZY do it? How does director Joseph H Lewis make me care so much about Bart and Laurie, even as I know I should despise what they do?
There's no one answer to that question, but I was struck by something I noticed while watching GUN CRAZY again this past weekend: Bart and Laurie always seem to be in the same frame together.
By showing the two characters together in the frame so often, Lewis places the audience right in the middle of their lustful relationship. We become an invisible third member, drawn deeply into their passionate, physical, inseparable relationship with each other. We are put right in the midst of their desires.
And when they're not, there's a feeling of wrongness, of something being off/out of whack/imbalanced/disjointed. Even though technically they are in the same shot below, because of the beam that separates them, they seem to be in two different spaces. It's no coincidence that in this moment of the film they are down on their luck and feeling desperate and lost:
Once they come up with the plan for their last big score, even though they continue to be in the same frame, there's always some object in the frame which separates them:
After robbing the meat packing plant, they plan to separate for awhile so that the cops won't catch them. But separation is just not possible for Bart and Laurie, so entwined are they with desire for each other:
They must drive back and reunite in passionate embrace:
Together again, the pure joy and relief they feel:
Just as Bart and Laurie cannot bear to be separated, we too cannot be separated from them. We follow them as they ride in the car, like a back seat passenger, like an accomplice in their crimes. But we follow them in their tender moments too, like an accomplice in their passion.
The following shots are from the film's finale. Lewis keeps the lovers together in tight framing not only so we experience their passion for each other but also their feelings of being trapped. But at the climax -- when they are about to be apprehended by the police -- he separates them, isolating Bart and Laurie in separate frames.
But they are reunited in death:
Lewis draws the audience so deeply into the lust/love relationship between Bart and Laurie with his framing and shot selection that it makes the film feel as much like a love story as a crime story for the audience. We want to see Bart and Laurie get away from the cops and survive and live together forever because we are a part of their relationship. We are inside their perverse love story, and as much as we would ordinarily repel from their crimes and their psychosis, we can't because Lewis has turned us a little crazy too. We're crazy for Bart and Laurie and the sex and the passion and the pain and the strangeness and yes, even the violence, that goes with them. Watching GUN CRAZY is a thrilling experience. It leaves us exhilarated and breathless. But it should also disturb us too, that we can be so caught up in and thrilled by the lusts and lives of two gun crazy people.