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The Origins of American Outlaw Cinema

Film noir specialist Eddie Muller’s new book Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema is a heartfelt tribute to one of the seminal crime films in Hollywood history. Muller, author of several novels and histories of film noir, curates and hosts the venerable Noir City film festivals (begun in San Francisco but now also presented in cities throughout the U.S.). His enthusiasm for Gun Crazy is infectious and makes for an entertaining and interesting read which travels from the movie’s source material through the development of several scripts and the shooting and marketing of the film. Muller is a lively writer who avoids jargon-heavy theorizing; he’s more interested in sharing historical research in an entertaining fashion than in grinding an academic ax.

MacKinlay Kantor, author of the 1940 Saturday Evening Post short story also called Gun Crazy, was a hugely popular novelist in his day. He honed his chops writing for Real Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, and pumped out a wide variety of commercial fiction, including a slew of historical novels. He was fond of telling people “I’m a nineteenth-century man!” Muller quotes from an interview where Kantor explains that he “would have fitted in well back there, among the pioneers, the fighters of the Civil War, the dreamy romantics who wrote long novels about war and peace.”

Kantor was contacted by the King Brothers, three outrageous characters with checkered backgrounds in dodgy business endeavors who had success producing such B movies as Dillinger and The Gangster. Kantor visited the siblings in their unpretentious Hollywood digs and became especially fond of their mom, who the “boys” called “The Queen of the Kings.” The chapter on Maurice, Frank, and Herman King is one of the book’s many highlights; they were fascinating personalities who carved out a niche for themselves outside the major studio system. Though also enamored of gambling and playing the stock market, all three brothers were dedicated to making streamlined, modestly-budgeted pictures that turned a profit. They worked diligently with Kantor to cut the novelist’s overlong original draft about the doomed lovers Bart and Laurie down to a workable script, but ultimately took what Kantor wrote and hired the reliably gifted and thorough Dalton Trumbo to fine-tune a finished screenplay.

Trumbo, most famous for his classic anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, began his screenwriting career in the the 1930s. By the early 1940s he was one of the most highly paid writers in Hollywood, making $3,000 a week at MGM. But when anti-communist witch hunts targeted Hollywood leftists after the close of WWII, Trumbo was blacklisted for his radical politics. Under those conditions, he had to write incognito and the King Brothers could afford Trumbo’s services (his contributions to the film were “fronted” by Millard Kaufman, who did no writing but received screen credit with Kantor). Interestingly, Trumbo harbored no sour grapes over the decline in pay. He was grateful for the work and got a kick out of the eccentric but down to earth King Brothers.

The Kings certainly got their money’s worth for the $3,750 they paid Trumbo for his Gun Crazy script doctoring. Muller writes:

Essential to Trumbo’s revision was the transformation of lots of banal (if believable) dialogue into bursts of stylized language: “Maybe we just go together, Laurie – like guns and ammunition!” The new dialogue mostly espoused Bart and Laurie’s passion for each other.

Trumbo also wrote a scene where Laurie caresses Bart’s pistol, but these and other salacious scenes were cut. Back and forth negotiations with Hollywood censors in the Production Code Administration were par for the course at the time, and the various ways the Kings got around the Code are fascinating.

The two leads, John Dall as Bart Tore and Peggie Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr, are perfectly cast. Dall’s Bart is, at first anyway, a reluctant criminal whose conscience tugs at him as he moves into a downward slide. But Peggie Cummins steals the movie with a performance that ranks Laurie in the very top tier of screen femme fatales. She’s vivacious and strong willed, with a decided flair for homicidal behavior. Muller was lucky enough to talk to the still-vibrant Cummins about her experiences during the shoot and her recollections are both illuminating and sweet. She hasn’t a bad word to say about anyone associated with the film, telling Muller, “Being Irish, I do get on with a lot of different people, so it was no problem.”

Joseph H. Lewis became an idol of the late 1950s-early ’60s French New Wave filmmakers for his Gun Crazy direction. Though Lewis deserves the praise he received for his work on Gun Crazy, Muller points out that in later years Lewis, responding to accolades he received from younger French and American cineastes, exaggerated his contributions to the film’s writing. His admirers were in the thrall of the auteur theory, which argued that truly great directors were solely responsible for the artistry of the films they worked on, a fairly ridiculous concept in a medium as collaborative as filmmaking. Muller points out that while Lewis took credit for the Montrose robbery scene being entirely outside the bank, Kantor had actually written the scene as it appeared onscreen “from the very first draft.” Lewis also didn’t, as he claimed, cut down Kantor’s overlong script, Trumbo did. And the final robbery was set in a meat packing plant not because Lewis seized on that locale, but because Kantor wrote it that way.

But however much he may have later indulged in self-aggrandizement, Lewis did his best work on Gun Crazy, as Muller’s meticulous examination of key sequences makes clear. The King Brothers gave Lewis the freedom to take chances, which paid off in spades. Most famously, Lewis worked with cinematographer Russell Harlan to achieve one of the most stunning tracking shots in the history of cinema: the drive through Montrose, California to a bank that Bart robs while Laurie waits nervously in the car. The single shot is from the point of view of the camera mounted in the car’s back seat, with no cut until the criminal couple have driven away from the holdup. In Muller’s words, “Hiring Dalton Trumbo had been smart; hiring Joe Lewis was Frank King’s masterstroke.”

Going along with United Artists’s suggestion to change the picture’s title to Deadly is the Female was a less clever move by the Kings. Lewis’s response: “I wanted to vomit.” In the wake of the title change Cummins was called back to pose for publicity photos in a strapless gown, an outfit she wore nowhere in the actual film. Upon release, the film garnered good reviews, but it didn’t make money. Muller speculates that one reason may have been the incredible number of great pictures released in 1950 (among them the noir classics In a Lonely Place, Sunset Boulevard, Panic in the Streets, and The Asphalt Jungle), which made it difficult for Gun Crazy, aka Deadly is the Female, to stand out. The most entertaining critical response cited here came from The Times of India:

“This crime melodrama is … solely occupied with daring hold-ups at the point of a revolver of small-town shopkeepers, bank robberies, and the ingeniously planned and diabolically executed big payroll robbery, regardless of the shooting down of innocent victims, not to speak of the sex-dripping, torrid romantic interludes of the infatuated gun-crazy doll Dall and his killer-wife Peggy, the deadly female whose fatal fascination lures him deeply into the filthy quagmire of a criminal life. Such films are capable of insidiously poisoning the minds of discontented adolescents.” Muller calls this screed “a notice the Kings might have gleefully written themselves.”

Muller closes his overview by citing the influence of Gun Crazy on Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and on Bonnie and Clyde (Muller notes that Cummins’s outfit of a “tight skirt, tighter sweater, and insouciant beret … [predated] Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie and Clyde wardrobe by 16 years.”)

This is one gorgeously laid out book. Muller complements his text with reproductions of key script pages, letters to and from the principals, and an incredible array of period photographs which offer glimpses into all stages of the production. (If after gazing at the reproductions of various international Gun Crazy posters you are left salivating for more, you are advised to treat yourself to the new edition of Muller’s gorgeous coffee table book The Art of Noir, which combines a treasure trove of vintage movie poster art with fascinating historical detail about the posters and the films they were promoting.) Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema is an impressive labor of love which more than succeeds at paying homage to a true 20th century classic.

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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