When I was in college, everyone had one of three posters hanging in their dorm—either a Bob Marley mosaic, Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
I had a poster of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
I’ve always been a sucker for stories of criminals in love and on the run, and the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway true life tale is the second of three quintessential films in this subgenre.
It’s tough to get just the right mix of crime and romance, and no one nailed it again until director Tony Scott and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino teamed up in 1993 to make True Romance. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are lovable losers who, unlike the other couples under discussion here, ultimately make a clean getaway. (True Romance was underappreciated in its day. If you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth your time.)
True Romance is a direct descendant of a line that stretches two generations back.
Before True Romance, there was Bonnie and Clyde.
But before Bonnie and Clyde, there was Gun Crazy.
Bart Tare (played by John Dall, last seen attempting the perfect murder with Farley Granger in Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope) is a boy enthralled with guns.
He loves to shoot, but not to kill.
His obsession with firearms lands him in reform school when he smashes a window and steals a gun from a display case.
He does a stint in the military and returns home, hoping to get a job with Remington.
He’s the best shot in town, but he still abhors the idea of killing humans or animals.
He’s instantly mesmerized when he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a carnival sharpshooter who invites him up on stage for a shooting contest.
For the contest, each takes a turn wearing a crown with six matches sticking out. While one stands still, the other shoots the matches into flames.
From that moment on they lust for one another as much as they do for guns, and they marry in the middle of the night at a roadside justice of the peace.
After an idyllic interlude as newlyweds, Annie grows tired of being broke and suggests they hold up stores and gas stations for money.
Even with the strict rules around sex and violence in 1950s Hollywood, it’s clear that stick-ups are the ultimate foreplay for Bart and Annie.
After a close call in which they had to abandon their entire haul of cash to elude capture, Annie and Bart decide to do one last job before retiring and running away to Mexico.
The job goes wrong. Deadly wrong.
The film lays the blame at Annie’s feet. The film was originally titled Deadly Is the Female, and Annie is the force propelling a previously good man down the road to ruin.
It’s Annie who wants to do one last job despite Bart’s protestations, and Annie who shoots and kills two people in the robbery.
Though she tells Bart that she was afraid in the moment, it’s been clear that Annie has a bloodlust that she’d thus far kept under control for his sake. The last job—the last chance to kill—was too great a temptation.
It’s Annie who wants to kidnap a child to prevent the cops from shooting at them in their getaway car.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, there’s no happy ending for Annie and Bart.
Gun Crazy was shocking for its time, but to modern viewers saturated in sex and violence, the film doesn’t quite hold up. We know Annie and Bart are consumed with lust and violence, but we don’t quite feel it.
Annie’s character is a bit too much of an enigma. Is she as in love with him as he is with her? Or is he purely her patsy?
The film never gives a definitive answer, and the uncertainty leaves the audience wanting.
Despite its flaws, Gun Crazy laid the blueprint for Bonnie and Clyde and True Romance, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
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