‘I want things,’ says Laurie Starr, anti-heroine of cult film noir Gun Crazy (1950). ‘A lot of things. Big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts… a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.’
She delivers these lines matter-of-factly, between putting on her stockings and part-challenging, part-seducing her new husband into joining her on a series of robberies [SPOILER] that will end in death for them both [END OF SPOILER]. The quote is frequently cited to demonstrate her near-psychotic acquisitiveness, her ruthless nature, her lust for power and skill for manipulating luckless partner Bart Tare, played by John Dall. But not only is her desire destined to be unfulfilled, it is also oddly unconvincing, spoken as if it’s what is expected of her, like much of the character’s minimal dialogue. Laurie never really gets any of her ‘things’; material gain from the couple’s crime spree is fleeting, and the guy isn’t up to much either. One senses that she knows this from the start, but cannot articulate the power of desire for desire’s sake; cannot admit to how much the violent process of satisfying that desire excites her.
Instead, Laurie Starr’s most memorable moments are non-verbal: flashes of action and intent from the mobile, expressive face and body of British actress Peggy Cummins, then in her early 20s - more tomboy than vamp, and exuberantly transported by action, violence and transgression, however hard her words might strive for conventionality. As the couple drive away from the scene of the film’s most celebrated heist, Cummins turns and faces the camera; as she sees the clear road behind them, her face blooms with pleasure, breaking into an impish and breathless grin. She wears the same cowgirl outfit in which we first glimpsed her performing a sexually charged shooting routine. Whether on a carnival stage or fleeing a bank job, she is rarely at ease. While Laurie shares some traits of classic noir women - not least a certain pragmatism and survival instinct - she is not presented as a femme fatale. She has none of the 40s temptress’s constructed mystique, nor her corresponding, closely styled appearance; her changeable moods and impulsive actions suggest that she is most of all a mystery to herself.
If Laurie Starr is an atypical noir heroine, Gun Crazy is no ordinary noir. Although it is directed by Joseph H. Lewis, best known for the classic The Big Combo (1955), and employs some of the severe angles, expressionist close-ups and shadowy pursuit scenes associated with the genre, it sometimes feels not like a noir at all. Gun Crazy is a film about modern sex, violence and poverty, but much of it has the slightly dreamlike, archetypal quality of a fable; its tone is at once ambiguous and highly moral. It offers some tantalising commentary on a lost, young underclass in post-war America, but never really dips beneath the surface. It chooses for its hero a man who seems reluctant to exist at all. Gun Crazy‘s most urgent and well-realised theme is one that, by necessity, remains heavily coded: that of transgressive, violent sexuality and fetishism.
The film begins as a teenage Bart is caught stealing a gun. In the court scene that follows, his sister and friends explain that while the kid loves guns, he is not violent - a fact demonstrated in a flashback in which Bart refuses to shoot at a mountain lion. Guns are objects of power for this disenfranchised, parentless young boy, but he is not a killer. When we meet Bart again in adulthood, he is a colourless, law-abiding character, whose slight melancholy and air of displacement are well realised in John Dall’s lanky frame and awkward smile. That smile becomes a charged, canine grin the night he and his friends enter a carnival tent to watch Miss Annie Laurie Starr’s performance, the climax of which is a shooting competition with an audience member. Of course, Bart volunteers, and narrowly wins, but this rather predictable sequence bursts into life thanks to the couple’s extraordinary chemistry. The play of heavily coded signals between the two - Bart’s triumphant smile; Laurie’s swaggering walk towards the target; the hits and the misses of both characters’ guns - sets up the power relationships they will play out as a couple. As an establishment of the erotic vocabulary of two fetishists, it is hard to beat, and is all the more effective for its air of secrecy: everyone in the room sees their attraction, but only Bart and Laurie seem to understand exactly its true nature. Like many deviant sexualities, it is both highly theatrical and very personal, and it is not surprising that Bart’s next step is to join the carnival himself.
Gun Crazy‘s slightly soporific atmosphere is only stirred up when it focuses on the two lead characters’ gun fetish. In an echo of both sexual role play and the characters’ carnival days, Bart and Laurie carry out a series of robberies in disguise. But there are no safety words for these scenarios, and the logical progression of their fantasy into the real-life trauma of murder and a fugitive lifestyle takes its toll on Bart’s already shaky sense of reality: ‘Sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. I wake up sometimes and it’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.’ All Laurie can offer back is that she is real - which only serves to reinforce the lack of escape routes for them both. Later, after agreeing to separate after their last big heist (to avoid suspicion), they are unable to do so, turning their respective getaway cars around in a scene that is both highly camp and deeply sad. While the added back story ostensibly casts Bart as the lead, there seems no doubt in Lewis’s direction that they are in it together, whether that’s as star-crossed lovers or as victims of a shared delusion.
And yet the film’s alternate title was Deadly Is the Female, and many reviews of the film still cast Laurie as a deliciously wicked character, the driving force of evil, a violent woman whose already dangerous sexuality is exacerbated by the weaponry that she carries. But even if we accept such readings as dated, indicative of paranoid male fantasies of powerful women, and recognise the transgressive fun to be had in such stereotypes, it is a shame that sympathetic takes on Laurie are still rare. More understanding is reserved for her husband, a man who feels emasculated in a post-war society. Bart’s passion for shooting ‘things, not people’, while clearly in sexual thrall to a violent woman through whom he kills vicariously, is cited as evidence - in the film, at least - that he is inherently harmless, and blameless, when in fact it is close to sinister.
If Bart is emasculated, Laurie is even more so, yet she takes action, again and again. The film’s timing is crucial. Following the Second World War, women who had enjoyed a measure of power during the 1940s - and seen themselves reflected in strong film portrayals by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell - began to fade once more from public life, which was echoed in the cinema in what Susan Faludi calls ‘the image of womanhood surrendered… Strong women displaced by good girls’ (in Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women). There is something both exciting and poignant in the way Cummins’s character inhabits her femininity and pushes against its constrictions at a time when the idea of femininity was undergoing a re-evaluation from active back to passive. In the film’s most action-packed and erotic sequences, Laurie moves and dresses in a masculine way: she is most capable in a cowboy outfit; at her best when running, driving, fucking and doing. When she dons a black dress and opulent fur for a last, romantic night out, it is moments before she’s on the run again, the fur dropped in a puddle, the high heels skidding on the pavement. It’s a direct contrast to the film’s last successful heist, in which she poses as a secretary. Dressed for practicality in trousers and flats, she is reprimanded by the head of the typing pool for her inappropriate office wear. ‘I hope to see you in a skirt tomorrow,’ says the manager, only to be gunned down by her typist minutes later. While Laurie demands ‘action’ from Bart, putting the onus on her male partner to take her where she wants to go, it is clear she has the will and resources to do it herself. As feminist critics of film noir have often stated, it is the agency of heroines such as Laurie Starr that makes such pleasurable viewing for women: just the very sight of a woman who acts, viewed separately from what those actions might be, is undeniably thrilling. [SPOILER] Laurie is eventually shot, not by the police, but by Bart himself, to prevent her killing his childhood friend. This jolting reminder that the male world is paramount is a response to the fact that, at her best (worst?) Laurie really does appear to pose a threat to that world. [END OF SPOILER]
Of course, Bart ends up dead beside her, the two slumped in the misty rushes like shot ducks. Both of them have been powerless from the start, as they move through the empty, tawdry settings of small towns, cheap rooms, fairgrounds and Vegas weddings. What’s striking, though, is Laurie’s commitment to turning this life around, however doomed the outcome. It’s tempting to imagine a parallel with the pragmatic, Poverty Row origins of the low-budget film itself, and in the odd, never fully realised career of Peggy Cummins herself, whose brief stint in Hollywood would end just a year later. She plays Laurie with an instinctive fierceness that a more A-list, experienced actress might have toned down; her accent, which swings from received pronunciation to an American drawl, marks her out as an outsider. Whatever big things Peggy Cummins was chasing, the unbridled, angry glee she brings to Laurie Starr suggests that, for the 30 days it took to make Gun Crazy, she managed to tap into the darkest essence of her character’s desires, in the process delivering one of the best power femme performances of the B-movie era.