Gun Crazy at 60: Pistol-Packing Anti-Heroine Peggy Cummins Looks Back
Exhausted the classic canon? Fed up with the current cinema of remakes, reboots and reimaginings? This week The Cold Case talks to Peggy Cummins, the star of a stylish, gritty noir classic made 60 years ago this summer.
While film noir detectives, desperados and dames are known for their direct dialogue, the titles of their capers are surprisingly soft-boiled: Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Where The Sidewalk Ends... they're all pretty oblique. Not so one of the greatest -- yet least seen -- of the species. As a title, Gun Crazy hits you right between the eyes to describe its protagonist, Bart Tare, played by John Dall, who since childhood has been obsessed with firearms. Equally vivid, though, is the original-release title Deadly Is The Female, which perfectly fits the femme fatale of the piece, Peggy Cummins' sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr.
Directed by B-movie specialist Joseph H. Lewis from a script co-written by MacKinlay Kantor and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, "fronted" by his friend Millard Kaufman, Gun Crazy was made for a measly $400,000 in 30 days in 1949. Despite the limitations, the results were pure pop poetry and years ahead of its time.
From the first expressionistic scene -- in which teen Bart (played by Russ Tamblyn) smashes a window to steal a pistol -- Gun Crazy is a gripping and vital visual experience. When adult Bart and Laurie start their relationship with a shoot-off (risking splattered brains), it's perhaps the sharpest meet cute in film history. Even more celebrated is the bank-robbery sequence -- which was improvised by Dall and Cummins. That it was filmed in one take from the back of the car so that we never see the hold-up can't help but make you feel Scorsese and Tarantino hopped in a time machine decades later.
What's even more modern about Gun Crazy is the overt connection made between guns and sex. Laurie's carnival sideshow act has her in the world's tightest pants as she pops balloons with her pistol before bending over to shoot between her legs. Bart's obsession clearly extends beyond an aesthetic appreciation of weapons or the thrill of firing them. As his sister puts it, "It's something else about guns that gets him." When these two connect, as another character says, they're like a "pair of wild animals." But, as the genre demands, their love is doomed, as much by his aversion to violence as her lust for blood.
Dall and Kantor died in the 1970s, as did Trumbo -- nearly two decades before he was posthumously awarded his credit. Lewis passed away in 2000. But Cummins is still going strong at 83, and Movieline found her.
"It was a great part," the Welsh native said of Laurie Starr a few weeks ago from her home in England. "It was a brilliant story from a brilliant writer. We had a very good director and a great cameraman. I think John Dall and myself were in those days quite well-suited in the parts we had."
Remembering the one-take driving scene, Cummins said: "I've always been a bad driver! And I had the crew in the back of the car with me. They weren't sure what I was going to do."
When I asked how Lewis directed her generally, Cummins was uncertain of what I meant. "Well, there is an account," I continued, wondering how one phrases such things to a regal-sounding octogenarian, "that he instructed you to play the role like a female dog in heat. Is that true?"
Cummins laughed. "I don't actually think so," she replied, adding that Lewis had said that to Danny Peary for his 1981 book Cult Movies. "But it might've been along those lines."
Deadly Is The Female was picked up by United Artists, but a wider release didn't help it greatly when it hit cinemas in January 1950. Critics noted its superior quality to the usual Poverty Row fare, but the overall assessment was still unenthusiastic. The New York Times called it a "spurious concoction [that's] basically on a par with the most humdrum pulp fiction". Variety declared it "curiously cold and lacking in genuine emotions." Re-released mid-year as Gun Crazy - and with a racy new poster - the movie played stronger. But audiences were more interested in the safe sharpshooting of Annie Get Your Gun, made for 10 times the amount.
Those who did see Gun Crazy, or caught it later on TV, remembered it. Even casual film fans will spot the influence it had on some of the most influential films of the second half of the 20th century, among them Godard's À bout de soufflé, Penn's Bonnie And Clyde, Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha, Malick's Badlands and Tarantino's first three crime scripts, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Natural Born Killers.
Unavailable on video for years, Gun Crazy was released to DVD in '04 and has a strong presence on the repertory circuit. The film played in February this year at the British Film Institute.
"I was going to the National Theatre, which is next door, and as I walked along the Thames, I saw this giant poster for Gun Crazy," Cummins recalled. "I passed it and then I came back and thought, 'Good heavens, I think that's me!' I didn't know it was going to be on!"
Thus Cummins saw it with an audience for the first time in six decades. Did they love it?
"You know, yes," she answered. "I would say that they did."