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Deadly Is the Female (Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1950, 87')

Presented by Santos Zunzunegui

 

 

19:00 Presentation: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 Deadly Is the Female (Gun Crazy), Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1950, 87'

 

 

GUN CRAZY (JOSEPH H. LEWIS, 1950)

 

In a decisive decade for the evolution of film criticism, Cahiers du cinéma—undoubtedly the magazine that marked the evolution of cinematographic thought for several decades (in addition to having been, like no other publication, an important breeding ground for relevant filmmakers; just think of the group known as the Nouvelle Vague, or "French New Wave")—published two special editions aimed at disseminating thought on the American film industry. These two editions of the monthly magazine founded by André Bazin aimed to reassess said film industry. The two issues, which were published respectively around Christmas of 1955 (issue 55) and 1963 (issue 150-151)[1] shared the same title (“Situation du cinéma americain”). Both were also dedicated to Orson Welles (the first with an express dedication to the master “without whom American cinema would not be what it is today”; the second with a caricature of the artist by Kenosha being included right before the index of texts), and they additionally had on their front covers two photographs of film stars from each historical time: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda (who was also interviewed—a sign of the new times).

But what is important to bring up is that, along with other materials, both issues included dictionaries of American producers[2]. Dictionaries that included, in the 1955 issue, filmographies and brief commentaries on 60 filmmakers. That number went up to 121 (more specifically, 120 plus 1; the magazine's writers wanted the reader to decide which one was the “odd man out”) in 1963-64. Both dictionaries had their own appendices in which the names of other producers who, for different reasons, were not included with those worthy of more detailed, critical attention were “listed.” If we review the categories of those excluded from the first issue, we can find—amongst others—categories which include the “dead,” the “retired”, the “false reputations” and the “workers.” And, of course, there is the category of the “dismayed hopes.” That is precisely where the name of Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000) appeared. If we look forward to the issue published just eight years later, we could think that Lewis's role in American cinema had been reconsidered. But, we would only have to take a look at a commentary that had been dedicated to Lewis at that time to see the truth. It was signed B.T., which stands for (according to the writers' identification that was at the end of the dictionary) Bertrand Tavernier—a critic who, by the way, was not part of the Cahiers hard core. His cinema would likewise not be part of the Cahiers hard core, as it was to be unappreciated by the successors at the helm of the magazine during the period of the “Young Turks” in the 1950s. As the text is short, we can quote it in full:

“Too brilliant a technician who is suffering, so to speak, from the ‘Big Director’ complex: he believes that the subject matter is always unworthy of him and everything is a delirium of camera travelling and tricks lacking a lens and rails. More comfortable, at the end of the day, in the squalid western: fifteen days of filming, not enough to slow anyone down—even to their defiance—so that they may take an interest in what they have to say.”[3]

 

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And, nevertheless... in this case, Anglo-Saxon criticism was to undertake[4] a much more detailed assessment of a unique filmmaker (although almost always limited to a reduced number of his works[5]). This was a more "open" look that would make a "case study" out of one of those "squalid films" (this time, not a western but instead what French criticism termed as a film noir), filmed as what is known as a "B film," the creative sphere ("creative" is the best word to describe it) in which all of Joseph H. Lewis's film work was undertaken.

To understand Lewis's career and his piece entitled Gun Crazy, we must take into account the foundation upon which his work developed. Said foundation was provided to him by a place known as “Poverty Road,” making reference to the street which housed the small film businesses seeking their big break in an industry controlled by the oligopoly made up of the Big Five: MGM, Fox, Warner, Paramount, and RKO; as well as The Little Three: Universal, Columbia, and United Artists, which had brought to American cinema the financial and aesthetic model that it used for several decades and, urbi et orbi, its role as the main influencer on the viewer's imagination around the world. We are speaking of modest companies that offered products that were complementary to those offered by the bigger companies which had made American cinema the dominating cinema. This was all during a time when attendance at cinema halls dropped dramatically from 110 million viewers per year at the beginning of the 1930s to barely 60 million at the beginning of the 1940s in the USA. Such were things that, on the fringes of what was the absolute power of the large studios, a complementary way of conceiving the cinema was gradually taking strength—linked to the need of the Majors to offer something extra to the increasingly elusive viewers. Companies like Mascot, Republic, and Monogram (to which Jean-Luc Godard was to dedicate his first feature film), competed with the special departments of the big studios (the most famous of which was the department developed to make short horror films under the direction of Val Lewton at RKO), aiming to provide fuel to accompany the big premieres of the Majors during those “double sessions” (one admission ticket, two films) that were thought up as a way to combat the growing lack of viewers referred to above[6].

A definition that is both quick and pragmatic of a B film must note that these are films which, fundamentally, have a “genre” (western, horror, science fiction, sword fighting films, film noir, etc.), they last no more than 80 minutes (and between 60 and 70 minutes are preferred), their filming must not surpass three weeks in length under any circumstances, they use actors which are not that well known and, as is logical, they have a reduced production cost. In short, these were films done quickly and cheaply (hence, they were given the name “quickies”). All of this meant that these products (for which the exhibitor paid a flat fee, unlike A films, in which a percentage of revenue was used as a basis for remuneration) were pieces of work that did not so much seek profitability in and of itself but, instead, they sought to strengthen the A film that they went along with. That fact, especially their low cost, had paradoxical effects: forced to be as creative as possible, the filmmakers who worked on these types of films could, in many cases, make the formula coined by Martin Scorsese their own: “with less money comes more freedom.” This allowed (Scorsese continues speaking) there to be a certain number of professionals amongst these filmmakers who found in this situation a unique chance to be able to express their particular cinematographic concerns and interests within a general context of high control over all artistic parameters from the Studios.

 

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This was the marshy ground over which the King Brothers trod (Frank, Maurice y Herman), producers who were nicknamed, for obvious reasons, the “Kings of the B films” and who had seen great success with the film Dillinger (Max Nosseck, 1945). They were to meet a filmmaker with much experience in making westerns on a low budget but who also had experience with a short thriller put together for Columbia Pictures and entitled My Name is Julia Ross (1945).

The starting material for Gun Crazy was a short story whose title was the same as that of the film (Gun Crazy) and which appeared in 1940 amongst the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. It was written by a writer who was not at all bad at what he did called McKinlay Cantor in a more 'retro' style than a contemporary one—to be converted into a script by the author himself.[7] Different circumstances brought someone called Millard Kaufman to be included in the credits of the film, a name which was a front name that hid a blacklisted screenwriter known as Dalton Trumbo, to whom the film's final narrative structure is normally attributed.

The film[8] tells yet another variant of the story of persecuted lovers, just as it has been forged by centuries of literature and, at that time, by almost sixty years of cinema. The tragic story of a couple made up of Bart (John Dall), whose fascination with guns (from his childhood onwards) will take him to the “dark side” when his life comes up against a young English woman (Laurie, played by the unforgettable Peggy Cummins) who barely scrapes by in life as a sharp-shooting sideshow performer at the travelling carnival. From there, interaction ensues between a femme fatale (one of the staples of the “noir” genre) in the purest of all senses and a male character that is unable to break free from the entanglement that his fascinating female companion weaves him into and which can be well summed up by this sentence that provides an overview of many of the motivations behind this story of love, violence, and death: “We go together like guns and ammunition go together.” This is a typically American story for, at least, two complementary reasons: first, because of the role that guns play in daily life and, even more importantly, in the mind's eye of the American citizen—something which the film rawly depicts; second, because its succession of violent acts has no other motivation than that of radical revolt in the face of difficulties to get money—difficulties that deprive the film's protagonists of the “American dream.” An account of an American woman turned nightmare[9].

That is why it is so important for the film to be included in several genres that are complementary: the film noir, of course, but, less to be expected given the date when the events unfolded (the 1940s), the western. Two notes to confirm the aforementioned. The encounter between Bart and Laurie is at a carnival in the middle of a sharp-shooting show. Of course, Laurie dresses like a cowgirl and shoots an old Colt. But what is really important lies somewhere else: in the way the film portrays her relationship with Bart—the young women aims and shoots looking openly towards the camera. The reverse angle shot shows a smiling, fascinated Bart. Forty-five years after the completion of the classic film directed by Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery, it is as if the final shot of the leader of the bandits has finally found its place. Finally, that old, wandering, subjective piece that could not find its place in the story has given way to the symbolic display of how such integration should take place. The results are those that have already been seen. Should we be surprised, in this “historicist” context, that the first important heist that the young couple pull off is with them dressed as cowboys? The film's formal logic places it in a dual dimension: that of history with a small 'h' (the history of American cinema; the history of cinema in general), and that of History with a big 'H' (the history of the USA, a country in which violence and guns are part of its basic DNA).

 

*

And, since we've gone this far, let us stop and reflect upon three big robbery scenes that act as the backbone for Gun Crazy. The first, which has just been alluded to, is the most important scene of the film. The robbery of the Hampton Building and Loan Association (four pages of the script and filming planned to include eleven shots[10]) is done in a sequence shot that lasts more than three and a half minutes. The point of view chosen by Lewis for the viewer (“I want you to see what is happening from here”) puts us in the back seat of the stolen Cadillac that Bart and Laurie use to perpetrate their misdeed. With them sitting in the front of the car, we go into the small city and draw closer to the bank beside which the car stops. Bart gets out and goes inside the building while Laurie keeps guard. The appearance of a police officer makes the young woman get out of the vehicle and, when the alarm goes off inside the bank (from our vantage point, we can only see the outside of the building through, first, the windshield, and later, the front-right window), she hits the cop and knocks him out. When Bart appears and gets into the car, we leave the small town with them.

Let's talk about it quickly. Breathless (À bout de souffle, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) may be dedicated to Monogram Pictures; however, it could just as well be dedicated to Lewis's film. It suffices to take a bird's-eye view of Godard's work to realise that the way of filming from a car and in a car (that quintessential American object) that was characteristic of Lewis obviously helped to fuel Godard's imagination in the glorious sixties. And the way Lewis treats the body and face of Peggy Cummins (“so sexy, so dangerous,” as the carnival advertisement announces) is not that different from how Godard treats Jean Seberg in his debut feature film. Also obvious is the influence on the Franco-Swiss master's work that came from the second robbery scene (the Rangers and Growers Exchange heist): while the first scene was a movement of expansion, the second (just like the wedding and honeymoon scenes) represents a movement of compression. A few quick, unstable shots (it is not by chance that this is the first time in the film that Laurie tries to kill someone) and a wardrobe (dark glasses, purses under the arm, long overcoats, out-of-place gestures) that is no longer anachronistic but instead brutally modern. Systole and diastole; expansion, contraction. The film's pulse comes together in a unique pace set by said movements.

Logically, the third robbery has to be (and is) a synthesis of the two types of aforementioned movements. The robbery of Armour Meat-Packing Co., to get money from the company's payroll office, is a much more elaborate scene both in terms of its duration and in terms of its iconography; we only have to think about the lovers' escape through the refrigeration chambers in the slaughterhouse amongst the hanging carcasses that do not only allude to the fact that Laurie has killed two people this time but also foreshadow the end of their criminal career. The end of the scene, with the camera once again in the back seat of the car, closes the cycle of robberies in formal terms while the lovers leave the scene of the crime.

 

*

The end of the film gives rise to visual ties and affiliations and turns the piece into an important part of the history of the country's cinema. How can we not think of the end of High Sierra (1941), if Lewis takes the way in which Walsh deals with the escape towards the protagonist's death as an explicit model? Likewise, Bart's sister's return home is inspired by the iconography of They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948). And how can we not hear the final echo of You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937) in the stark ending images? In the future, American cinema will return to this subject matter in some of its most important films of the sixties; for example, Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)—in which the brutality of violence takes the foreground. And, since we are speaking of a piece of cinematographic work with at least two suggestive titles, we could borrow the title from yet another great American film to summarise in just three words where Gun Crazy's impact and fascination lies: Kiss Me Deadly.

 

 

SANTOS ZUNZUNEGUI

 

[1] Both issues were also reprinted years later.

[2] The double issue of the sixties also included a dictionary of producers.

[3] B. T., “Lewis, Joseph H.”, in Cahiers du cinema, No. 150-151, December 1963–January 1964, pages 142-143.

[4] Although, to be fair with the French intelligentsia, we must not forget that authors like Ado Kyrou, in his famous Le surréalisme au cinéma, had not ceased to note, as early as 1953, a film that was going in the direction of what he called revolte folle

[5] Amongst those normally mentioned is The Big Combo (1955), a late variation of a film noir with a not-so-brilliant script by a Philip Yordan who had seen better days, a group of actors that are barely convincing, and photography by John Alton that, despite being the best part of the film, was not enough to make up for the rest of the piece's weak points.

[6] With said process having started in 1932, three years later it was present in 85 % of the cinema halls in the USA. The decline of the B film, which had become evident at the beginning of the 1950s, was one of the biggest reasons for the Antitrust Law (1948) that made the Majors unaffiliate themselves with the film halls that they owned—doing away once and for all with the companies' vertical business model. Now, the emerging TV would take care of this type of ‘B’ production.

[7] As is well known in Hollywood, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend: there is talk of an disproportionate initial script that was duly pruned and “adapted” by Trumbo. For more on this topic, see the documented study by Jim Kitsess, Gun Crazy, London, BFI, 1996.

[8] It is worth remembering that the film had two titles and two debuts. It was distributed by United Artists in January of 1950 under the title Deadly is the Female (in a double session with Lesley Selander's western, Storm over Wyoming) and it had its second debut in August of the same year with the title that we all know today.

[9] During their honeymoon, the couple spend their last few dollars on hamburgers. When asked by the waiter if they want onions, Bart answers, “Sure.” “It'll cost you a nickel more,” the waiter replies. “Hold the onions,” is Bart's response.

[10] Jim Kitses, Op. Cit., page 47.

 

 

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