Joseph H Lewis (USA 1950)
John Dall. Peggy Cummins
Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle UK; ticket: £5
Need another fix…?
Gun Crazy (GC) opens in a small town with a sequence set in
torrential rain, a relentless
outbursting of water drowning the streets in a metaphoric flooding of despair. Amidst this emotional and aquatic
torrent Brandon lurks in the shadows
before smashing in the window of a store to steal a hand gun: a beautiful handgun. But the storm that made the crime
possible also betrays him; trying to get away, he slips in the treacherous
conditions and is caught.
Joseph Lewis (JL) uses the opening rain sequence to
introduce the main thematic concerns of his movie. The desperation of obsessive desire and the emotionally encompassing
conditions in which such desire has to be satisfied.
Viewing the tense superbly crafted film, the thought
occurred that JL was not concerned with a couple on a criminal rampage. Rather GC was a film about addiction.
All the way through this road movie probably inspired by the Barrow Gang, I
felt as if it was foreshadowing the tidal wave of heroin addiction that was 30
or so years later to overwhelm the vulnerable strata of blue collar
America. GC holds up the mirror to
a shadow America, holding in the present a crystal image of celluloid, that
portents the future awaiting realisation of a drug culture.
This is blue collar land, economically and accurately
sketched out by JL. Broken family,
narrow vistas of vision, no future: a wasteland. A world of vulnerable people.. Vulnerable to the apparition of a specific stimulus that
seems to fulfil all the criteria of an individual’s needs and desires in the
Brandon’s answer to the problem of identity is the gun. The gun is a means. Not an end. An implement, not a goal. It’s tough in the rush of affirmation of sexuality and power
to understand this. It
affirms a means to identity, maleness and endows the one who has the gun with
implied power in mastery of technique and willingness to exercise.
But Brandon hooked up to Laurie, is unable to disentangle
ends and means. He becomes implicated in her need for
gestural deliverance, for the implicit to become explicit and for the gun to
extend out of the confines of the demonstrable, into the real. For reality to become an ever
diminishing high voltage circuit linking gun and desire.
The movie’s script plays on the seductive role of Laurie’s
in leading Brandon onto the road of crime. GC invokes the tired old story of a good man led astray by a
bad lady. Although this causative
mechanism can be read into GC, I think it does less than justice to JL’s
movie. The opening sequence
establishes Brandon’s need for the gun
(obvious Freudian/ Jungian sex /power symbolism) He cannot resist the allure of the
fetish that he needs to resolve his identity. The logic of Brandon’s situation was that he was always
vulnerable TO THE WAY OF THE GUN (OR THE WAY OF THE NEEDLE) because he needs a
solution to the blue collar dilemma: emotional damage no hope a dead end society culture. For Brandon it was a natural
progression from gun prowess to gun use; from marihuana to heroine.
Brandon and Laurie’s progress the form of their criminal
career is drawn by JL in a very
different manner from Penn’s movie of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn emphasises the visual and
emotional allure of the life, it’s a caper. Penn uses his material to peddle a romantically alluring
aesthetic of death. Bonnie
and Clyde are canonised as symbolic rebels. JL
depicts Brandon and Laurie’s path towards their final destiny in the
swamp ias a vicious downward
spiral of addiction. Their
robberies and crimes are quickly seen not so much to have an economic rationale
but rather to satisfy psychic and
physical need. The robberies
yield very little money; what each of the crimes provide is the next fix. The rush and the high to which Laurie
and Brandon are addicted to get them through time, the unending presents in which they are
trapped.. Living in the
present, no past no future but living with the junkies dilemma of decreasing
returns from each fix of action.
The circuitry of gun and desire tightens round them like a noose and
finally they acknowledge their dilemma, which of course leads to the well
trodden road of the final idea: lets do one more heist and get out of the game
and put our lives back on track. They are of course so far off the tracks that their navigation systems have
taken them out of space time coordinates.
Much has been said about JL’s filmic rendering of the
script. It is highly economic in
construction, building scenes with attention to details rather than production
values, in particular the bank robbery scene filmed in one shot from outside
the car with the participants, Laurie, a little old lady and a small town cop
positioned and manipulated by JL with the precision of a chess grand master. I
thought his use of tracking shots was particularly strong, meeting Truffaut’s
dictum that the track should have moral purpose. The tracks in GC are not random mechanisms used to keep the
picture moving. When JL tracks
into he face of Brandon or Laurie the use of the movement powerfully evokes the
perception, state of mind of the character or the fragility of situation. One
track that was very powerful saw the camera pull back from Laurie and Brandon
as he draws a plan of the last robbery.
The camera movement from CU
to WS reveals the nature of Brandon’s
plan which he has drawn on
an old newspaper. The shot
implicates not only the poverty of their resources but the couple caught in
what we see in the fragile light caste from an ornate glass lampshade seems
foretell the mayhem that isp to come, again to cast the shadow of the present
into the future.