Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy (1950): English, 86 min, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, written by Dalton Trumbo & MacKinlay Kantor, starring John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Harry Lewis, and Nedrick Young.

System 1 rating: 231, or 11100111

So I'll state right now that I'm in a noir class, so I'll probably be reviewing a lot of noirs. I'm trying to review everything I watch – for class, on the weekend, randomly on TV, everything – and it's not completely successful, but hopefully the most interesting reviews will make it through. We watched Touch of Evil last class, and I'd never seen it before, and thought it was amazing, and would love to review it, but I think I'll need to watch it at least a million more times before I can articulate my opinions without gushing. I have, however, been meaning to rewatch Shadows, and I think the two are remarkably similar, so maybe I'll try to tackle both.

Anyway, today's subject is Gun Crazy, an uncomplicated 1950's noir. A kid likes guns. He likes them a little too much and goes to reform school, and then into the Army. When he gets back, he doesn't really know what to do other than like guns. He meets a girl who likes guns, and uses her talents as a sharpshooter in a carnival. He joins the carnival, they fall in love, their boss gets jealous and fires them. Down on their luck, she convinces him that they should become armed robbers. Commence crime spree that comes to an appropriately ironic and perspective-forcing ending.

But here's the thing: That description sounds boring and almost generic, but Gun Crazy is anything but. It's simplistic, especially for a noir, but the characters are fascinatingly compelling, and their chemistry is astonishing. And the most important thing about this movie is that it's fun. It entertains thoroughly from start to finish, even when you know the beats well before they happen.

System 1 evaluation

1. Rewatch Value: Yes

This isn't the greatest movie ever made. It's probably not my favorite movie of 1950 (it's competing with The Asphalt Jungle, another noir we watched in my noir class that I liked and might review just to see which of the two I like better), but I would watch it again in a heartbeat just for the sheer enjoyment the filmmakers seemed to find in a story that, under any other circumstances, would seem to be a somber and plodding classic Hollywood era morality tale.

2. Emotional Impact: Yes

I never felt deeply sympathetic for the characters' plight, nor did I ever feel deeply wrapped up in what twist the plot was going to take (until the end, when I wondered whether any of the protagonist's friends would perish). Usually that would be a problem, but not in this case. I don't think this movie intended that for me. I think it intended for me to enjoy watching them go on a crime scene, and even enjoy watching it fall apart. And I did. Perhaps it's a voyeuristic enjoyment that comes from this movie, but it's the enjoyment I think they were going for, and it's the enjoyment I felt.

3. Goals of Cinema: Yes

If the goal of cinema is to entertain, this certainly succeeds. It has an attractive woman shooting guns and robbing banks. If that's not the goal of cinema, then I don't know what is. In another movie those same statements could be damning – certainly Transformers has an ostensibly attractive female with a hobby traditionally expected of men – but the movie pulls everything off so well that, even if the plot is somewhat predictable, even if you're not intimately familiar with postwar-era crime and noir films.

4. Goals of Art: No

Here's a question I debated for a bit. I initially gave this a no because otherwise it would get the same score as Lebowski, and then I realized that this defeated the purpose of my experiment. So I thought about it, and based on my previous definition of the goals of art I'm sticking with no. This movie doesn't explore anything particularly new as far as crime films go – how many movies from the 30's on are there where a criminal has a troubled youth, shows signs of delinquency early on by stealing things, etc. – and I feel like it fails to offer real challenges. It doesn't challenge you to understand where they're coming from because they're both depicted as coming from a strong emotional attachment to firearms, and it doesn't challenge you to keep watching simply because their actions are never depicted as particularly barbaric – Peggy Cummins' character shoots and kills several people, but she seems to do it out of a compulsive fear in those situations, and the people we see her shoot are both actively working against her rather. It's not a bad film by any means, but it feels a tad too comfortable, and in my opinion art isn't about feeling comfortable.

5. Artistic Intentions: No

For much of the same reasons as above, I say no. This movie is entertaining and well made, but (perhaps due to the infernal blight of the Hays Code) its overly simplistic moral perspective, which in my eyes should be considered an intention, is a flaw that must be acknowledged. If their intention was to make a good piece of entertainment, they succeeded. But their intention was also to make it conform sufficiently to a strict moral code, to avoid rocking the boat. And while they certainly succeeded in that, I can't help but wish they hadn't.

6. Artistic Execution: Yes

Despite them not having spotless (in my opinion) intentions, I firmly believed they carried them out well. They made a phenomenally fun film. John Dall's grin is almost comical in this scene where he first meets Peggy Cummins' character, but it somehow he doesn't overdo it, and aside from the opening courtroom scene (which suffers from the usual problems with child actors, courtroom scenes and flashbacks) the film never loses that feeling that, despite often being obvious, it's never dishonest.

7. Technical Intentions: Yes
8. Technical Execution: Yes

This clip says everything you need to know about the technical aspects of this movie. The fact that a B-movie working with Godzilla-sized 1950's camera and sound equipment inside a vehicle that was clearly actually driving on a real location made a shot of that complexity look that good says it better than anything I can write about how this movie is put together.


So now I've written this review, and I should probably go back and go over it before I post it to make sure it's coherent. I started in the middle and worked my way outwards, so my opinions may contradict themselves at times, but I reserve the right to disagree with myself. I think I've reviewed this movie well, and based on a quote (which can be found on Wikipedia) I certainly discussed this film with more tact than the director himself, though that perhaps is not a fault.

But I know you're all just dying to know how this rating stacks up against my gut feelings. It scored a 231, an interesting number, high but not in the clouds like so many of the Coen brothers' films I weigh my scale with. Purely in terms relative to the Coens' work, I'm willing to say this number is about right. I ranked this higher than Raising Arizona and True Grit and I'll gladly stand by one of those (I'm afraid I'll need to watch Arizona a few more times before my opinion on it really settles down), and I ranked it lower than everything else by them I've seen more than once and I think any fool in film school would agree with me.

Still, I feel that perhaps the Coen brothers' movies are ranked too high (or too close together), and perhaps this one is as well. But perhaps not - I have, after all, limited myself to 256 possible ratings, and since there have been a few more than 256 movies made in the history of cinema there's bound to be some overlap. If I can get System 2 finalized I may revisit this movie with renewed vigor, perhaps even going so far as to watch it a second time, to see how it holds up.

Relative to the ratings I have, both posted and in the pipeline, I'd say 231 is a fair appraisal of my opinions of Gun Crazy. Trying to see this on an absolute scale, perhaps 231 is a bit high for a movie that I repeatedly imply is "just entertainment" (in retrospect, that's extremely pretentious of me, but I don't really know how else to explain this movie). Once again, my doubts about my scale are outweighed by the knowledge that my sample size (two) is far too small to start drawing any meaningful conclusions about the accuracy of the scale.

I would like to restate that anyone who watches or has already seen this movie, or any movie I review, is encouraged to post comments with their own answers to the questions and calculate their own ratings. Not only might it help you think about movies, it will help me calibrate my scale. This scale isn't just meant for me, it's meant to work generally for everyone, and that's hard to test if I'm the only person testing it. (If you find the scale confusing and are unsure how to use it, post a comment asking me to explain it. I haven't gotten any feedback on how well I explained my theory and my system from anyone, and I feel like my first two blog posts are a little incoherent. I'll gladly write up new explanations of both if anyone feels in the dark.)


  1. Also, you guys should all use the RSS feed so I don't have to constantly Tweet and G+ my blog posts. It'll get annoying.

  2. I haven't seen this film.