February 27, 2009

Gun Crazy

A smirk, a smile, guileless and sad fading into the fog: John Dall was not one of Hollywood's leading men before or after making the noir film Gun Crazy, the only other film I have seen him in is Alfred Hitchcock's Rope where he plays a highly seductive, highly intelligent provacateur and murderer. Dall in Gun Crazy plays someone at first sight completely different- a dupe of a femme fatale (I saw the film as part of the BFI's femme fatale season)- harmlessly fascinated by shooting but not by shooting people. The film opens with a scene which stresses Bart's (Dall's character) innocence and addiction to guns- but not to harming anyone. His sister and friends tell a judge that though he finds a gun irresistable: he cannot bare to kill anything, animal or human, rather Bart enjoys shooting for the skill of it, because it is the only thing he can do well. Years later, with the same two friends, he goes to a fairground and manages to beat their leading attraction- the sexy gun slinger Annie Laurie Starr- at her own game. She challenges the crowd and Dall comes forward to challenge her- and he beats her in a shooting contest. Dall drifts into becoming her sidekick on the fair- and later on drifts into becoming her accomplice in a set of robberies. Gulled by sexual attraction and by his innocent trust in Laurie, Bart becomes a hunted criminal and a murderer.

This downwards trajectory seems to be a warning story about being seduced by a 'wrong un'- but the film is much more complicated than that. Bart's attraction to Laurie is about her personality: about her vivacity but also about the fact that she is more experienced than him in the ways of the world. Choosing confidantes in life is about choosing which kind of person you wish to become. When Bart chooses Laurie, it is because she oozes sensuality- one shot where she lies on a bed in a dressing gown and the camera focuses in on her face, as his face moves into kiss it, is one of the most erotic I have ever seen in cinema. But there is more than that. Bart is attracted to Laurie's vicious search for what she wants out of life- predominately things and money- he is attracted to her because she provides him with a confidante, a capacity to be criminal. At one point Bart actually says as much to her, he says he is as guilty of her murders as she is for he lets her do his killing. By the end of the film, he has realised and we have realised that the desire to use guns was a desire to shoot people- but that desire was blocked by something in Bart- meeting Laurie is the best thing that has ever happened to him (from his point of view) because she stiffens him to remove that inhibition, by tempting him to live vicariously through her killings and by allowing him to enjoy his own killings.

This is an exceptional film because it is so normal. There are some fantastic performances here- Dall is perfectly cast, wonderfully inhabits his role, his Jimmy Stewart innocence evolving step by step and with backward glances into a criminal enjoyment, his smile into a smirk. Peggy Cummins is also brilliant- playing a similar part, she gives a better performance than Faye Dunnaway did in Bonnie and Clyde. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable- at times they seem (particularly Dall) like gawky teenagers just catching the first glimpse of a kiss- at other points Cleopatra and Anthony are on the stage. But that sensuality allows something else to prosper, you can see and understand the chemistry as a psychopathic union that allows the criminality to flower in both of them. Laurie we know has killed before- but Bart, save for his curious affection for guns, seems like a country school kid until what was latent is let free, and the kid turns into a killer.

The one thing that I can't get over in the film ultimately is Dall's smile- like that of the Cheshire Cat it lingers over the film- and progressively it gets more and more disturbing, as he makes an impercetible translation from Jimmy Stewart into Clyde Barrow.