They Got Their Money’s Worth: Joseph H. Lewis’s “Gun Crazy”

I wrote this introduction for The Mesilla Valley Film Society’s screening of Gun Crazy in October, 2023.

Gun Crazy is easily in my top five film noirs, probably even in my top three. It’s got everything you need to qualify as a genre classic: a crime spree, a hot couple, and a director who’s determined to get every single cent’s worth of his budget and putting it on the screen.

The budget is just as good a place as any to start talking about this movie. Gun Crazy had neither time nor money on its side. Joseph H. Lewis wrapped this thing in just fourteen days with a budget of just $400,000, and a lot of this movie’s storytelling success can be attributed to getting cinematographer Russell Harlan and editor Harry Gerstad to handle their respective tasks. Those names probably aren’t familiar to most of you, but later, Harlan would be the lensman that shot movies like Witness for the Prosecution and To Kill A Mockingbird and the Gerstad cut the iconic High Noon as well as the 1966 Batman movie.

Lewis himself, now he’s one of the people that made noir a whole thing after starting out with westerns and war flicks. His genre breakout was 1945’s My Name Is Julia Ross, and he returned with 1949’s The Undercover Man in the bag before tonight’s feature, which he made in 1950, along with the Hedy Lamarr noir (say that three time real fast) A Lady Without A Passport. Those were followed by 1953’s Cry of the Hunted, 1955’s The Big Combo, and the 1958 western noir Terror in a Texas Town. That’s one we’re going to try to get down here soon, because while I haven’t even had a chance to watch my copy of it yet, the poster features Sterling Hayden carrying a harpoon down an old west main street and that means I’m already giving it five stars.

In front of the camera, you’ve got John Dall as Bart and Peggy Cummins as Laurie. Dall never broke out like he should, and that’s a shame. He’s most famous for his supporting role in Kubrick’s Spartacus, but I like him most for his performances in Hitchcock’s Rope and the noir The Man Who Cheated Himself. Like Dall, Cummins never quite became a name, but in addition to this, she’s great in the gaslight noir Moss Rose and the British trucker noir The Hell-Drivers, which is a must-see. Both of them show up for Gun Crazy and bring some real gusto. 

That may have been because of the direction they received on day one from the director. In an interview with Danny Peary, he recalled: “I told John, “Your cock’s never been so hard”, and I told Peggy, “You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.” That’s exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions.” 

Some quick hits so we can get right to it:

  • The screenplay was by MacKinlay Kantor and a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who was forced to use the nom de plume Millard Kaufman. They adapted a 1940 story by Kantor that was published in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • Poverty row stalwart and noir production house Monogram Studios was supposed to release this originally, but the producers opted to pitch it to United Artists, who gave Gun Crazy  a wider release and the marketing push it deserved.
  • The one-take bank heist sequence — you’ll know it when you see it — was shot without anyone besides the actors, the crew, and the people in the bank knowing what was happening. They cheated a bit and used a stretch Cadillac so they’d have enough room to mount the camera, but I promise you won’t care.
  • A surprising number of critics at the time seemed to really like it, with major market papers like the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Examiner, Detroit Free Press, and the Chicago Tribune singing its praises. Variety hated it, though.
    • You can’t make everyone happy, I guess, and if even if you somehow did, you probably wouldn’t be making film noir.
  • Gun Crazy was added to the National Film Registry in 1998 because it is “Culturally, Historically, or Aesthetically Significant.” I just think it’s neat!

As always, thank you all so much for coming out. We wouldn’t be screening these films if you weren’t willing to give up your Sunday nights for them. If you’re in the position to help support indie films and repertory screenings like this in the borderland, please consider joining the Mesilla Valley Film Society. Postcards at the exits can tell you how to do that.

Next month, we’re screening what might actually be my favorite film noir ever; it’s certainly the one that most critics agree is the best: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

And Now For A Commercial Message:

There are two ways to get Gun Crazy on blu-ray: Warner Archive released a gorgeous single-disc edition that is $20 at the time of writing, but there’s also a four-pack from the imprint featuring that same remastered Gun Crazy along with the fantastic Robert Ryan’s boxing noir The Set-Up, Jacques Tournier’s Out of the Past and Dick Powell turn as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet for just $35 at the moment.





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