a commentary by Tony McRae

It's night and raining.  A boy Bart Tare walks up to a store front and looks at the guns in the window(1), breaks the glass(2), grabs a revolver and ammunition, slips and falls.  When he looks up a cop is towering over him.  That leads to four years of reform school, a stint in the army (as a firearms instructor), then back to his home town without a job he's interested in.  One night he and his boyhood friends Clyde and Dave go to a sharp shooting demonstration at a local carnival where Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) is giving a sharp shooting demonstration(3).  Bart's friends encourage him to accept an offer to challenge the sharpshooter.  Bart (John Dall) finally agrees, and he wins.  He is hired by Laurie's manager Packet.  The two become involved, are fired by a jealous Packet and off they go, with no prospects and little in common but their love for guns.  They get married, have a whirlwind honeymoon.  They seem the stereotypical couple in love(4), until they blow their money in Vegas and are forced to pawn what little they have.

No money, no fun.  Laurie is restless, wants excitement.  She thought, mistakenly, that with this guy who knew how to handle guns she could "do a little living."  She needs to push a bit.  "If I can't get it one way I'll get it another."  Bart thinks he knows what she means, and it makes him uncomfortable.  "I told you I was no good," she says matter-of-factly.  She knows her man, knows how to reel him in(5), knows how to play on his self doubts(6).  The femme fatale is born.  

Laurie convinces Bart to pull a series of small robberies, to get them over the hump.  She uses her beauty cunningly, and makes sure he knows that if ever he decides to get normal, she will leave him.  "I want a guy with spirit and guts...You better kiss me goodbye, Bart, because I won't be here when you get back."  She's too much for him.  All he can do is go to her bed and go along(7).  

The cut from their kiss to the next scene is a tour-de-force of editing, at once dramatic and funny.  It's a shot of a gumball machine.  We see a close-up of the gumballs, then the globe explodes(8).  Cut to Bart pointing a gun at the store owner.  It's their first robbery.  The sign behind the globe "Travelers Aid" is appropriate since these two crooks will be taking quite a long journey and will need money, only the money they get is not much more than the price of candy.

But that's okay for now, at least for Laurie.  This is living, we can see it in her eyes.  Only after they begin their life of crime does she tell him she loves him.  

As their robbery spree escalates, they become more and more reckless.  Laurie is alive, she thrives; we get the feeling she has never been happier, even as they are being pursued by the police(9).  The higher she gets, the more tentative Bart becomes.  At one point he says with resignation in his voice, "We go together...maybe like guns and ammunition go together."  Whenever they embrace he is tormented, she revels in their predicament(10).  

Laurie seems to be motivated by fear, or rather fear makes her do crazy things--like killing people.  At the same time she loves the excitement, even the excitement of killing.  She loves Bart only as long as he can provide her with thrills; it's clear sexual thrills run a distant second to shooting.  

Bart and Laurie are now celebrities, so they have to keep moving, there's no slowing down.  They resort to disguises and stolen cars.  Bart does the driving, she gives him direction.  This sequence of going from one job to another--about forty minutes into the movie--is at once exhilarating and funny.  Director Joseph H. Lewis is clearly enjoying himself here.  We see them as a couple out of a screwball comedy(11), as a proper military family(12), and finally, with the authorities closing in, as fleeing criminals whose car has become a prison(13).  When they are finally forced to abandon their car after a reckless attempt to break out of the circle the police have set up, they have no place to go but into the back country, a swamp in fact(14).  As pictured in the movie, it's a primordial place that will work its way into their psyches.  

There's no escape.  Either they fight it out or surrender.  In his entire life Bart has killed only a baby chick (with a bb gun) when he was nine or ten.  He's shown time and again that he's no killer.  But this is different.  As the police emerge from the heavy fog that encapsulates them, he sees Laurie stand up, a catatonic, demented look on her face.  She shouts with relish, "One more step and I'll kill you(15)."  Bart shoots and kills her, then stands to go to her, but just as he reaches her body he is riddled with bullets.

One explanation for his action is that she's about to shoot his boyhood friends who have been calling his name.  But is this his primary motivation?    Throughout "Gun Crazy" Bart has agonized over Laurie's power over him.  He is unable to act without her; she gets her way at virtually every turn.  What he discovers in the swamp is something he already knew but didn't know he knew.  And now he knows.  By killing her he liberates himself, even though he is certain he will soon be killed.  And he liberates her as well.  

Do we know why Bart has been fascinated by guns?  As a youngster he's just a little "off."  Shooting seems to be the only thing he's good at.  It does get him Laurie.  There is little doubt that Bart has a repressed personality.  His only friendships seem to be with the two boyhood friends Clyde and Dave.  It's likely Laurie is his first and only girlfriend, and while he is attracted to her sexually and romantically, he appears more troubled than aroused, even when she comes on to him, which happens rather frequently.  Peggy Cummins' layered performance makes Bart's helplessness seem almost normal.  He never does figure her out, never does play the same game she is playing.  It's a game with no winners.

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