Sunday, May 6, 2012

Seven Shadows: DAY 6 - Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy (1950) depicts a kind of noirish Bonnie and Clyde story (for a review of this first-rate offering, visit my site, Shadows and Satin, and check out Andrew’s post). For me, the heart of this feature is the relationship between Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr – in today’s entry for Seven Shadows, I take a peek inside the connection between this dysfunctional duo.

It was love – or something – at first sight.

Gun Crazy’s sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) makes her entrance on a carnival sideshow stage with guns blazing. Seated in the audience, with his two best pals, is Bart Tare (John Dall), newly returned from a stint in the army. As Bart watches, he literally leans forward in his seat, his face plastered with an ear-to-ear grin and his eyes wide and shining. And Laurie? Among the tent full of thrill-seekers, she zeroes in on Bart, points her gun straight at him – and fires. 

Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr

If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.

Minutes later, Bart and Laurie are engaged in a courtship dance that involves a gun-shooting competition – when Bart first joins her on stage, they look each other up and down, both sporting mutually appreciative smirks. And when Bart bests Laurie in the shoot-off, her appreciation increases – appreciably. She arranges for him to sign on with the carnival, and the two begin dating, despite the fact that Bart is warned away by a clown (yes, a clown) who tells him: “She ain’t the type that makes a happy home . . . Some guys are born smart about women and some guys are born dumb. You were born dumb.” 

But Bart is hooked. He doesn’t heed the words of the wise clown, nor does he back off when his smarmy, liquor-swilling boss, Packy (Berry Kroeger) tells him, point blank, that he “has a claim” on Laurie. And in contrast with his easygoing, amiable personality, Bart doesn’t hesitate to fire a shot in Packy’s general direction when he catches Packy making the moves on Laurie. It’s a costly shot, granted, as it winds up getting them both axed from the carnival, but Bart gets the girl, so it’s worth it. (Isn’t it?) And soon after they leave the carnival behind them, Bart and Laurie become man and wife, taking their first joyous step on a journey toward happily ever after. (Right?)

Not so fast.

Despite the instantaneous, irrefutable attraction between Bart and Laurie, and notwithstanding that they, according to Bart himself, went together like “guns and ammunition,” theirs was not exactly a match made in heaven. Oh, they had a wonderful time in the beginning – we see them taking a stroll hand in hand, picking out wedding rings, sitting blissfully by a waterfall, dancing at a swanky nightclub, living it up in Vegas. But the good times don’t last. Before long they’re hocking their rings at a pawn shop and turning down onions on a couple of (really tasty looking!) burgers at a roadside dive because they can’t afford the extra nickel. And it’s about this time that we learn that all is not sweetness and light with these two. 

John Dahl as Bart Tare

But why?

Because, as it turns out, aside from their mutual affinity for firearms, Bart and Laurie couldn’t be more different. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Laurie gives us a pretty clear key to her personality early in the film, when she gives Packy the brush-off, telling him: “You’ll never make big money. You’re a two-bit guy. No guts. Nothing. I want action.” And later, before she and Bart enter the offices of the justice of the peace, Laurie offers up this revelation: “I’ve never been much good, at least up to now I haven’t. You aren’t getting any bargain. But I’ve got a funny feeling that I want to be good. I don’t know, maybe I can’t. But I’m gonna try. I’ll try hard, Bart. I’ll try.”

  • Money doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot to Bart. As they leave the carnival after being fired, Laurie half-jokes that Bart should have waited until payday to shoot at Packy. And Bart blithely responds, “I’ve got money. We’ll get along all right.” I don’t know where he got his money from – aside from his short stint at the carnival – or how much he has saved, but it couldn’t be too much. Still, he doesn’t seem concerned. It simply doesn’t matter.

  • When Laurie – not for the first time, apparently – floats her idea that they turn to robbery for some easy cash, Bart’s response is that it’s “too dangerous” and “somebody might get hurt.” And Laurie’s point of view? “How can anybody get hurt if we don’t hurt them?”

  • We see Laurie and Bart living in a crummy, run-down hotel. Laurie grouses that there’s no more hot water. Bart rejoins, “Well, it’s a roof, anyway.” Bart reminds his bride of a $40 a week job he can get, assuring her that they can “get by on that,” and Laurie replies, “Yeah, Maybe you can, but not me. It’s too slow, Bart. I wanna do a little living.” Bart even tells her that he’ll hock his prized gun collection – but that’s not enough for Laurie. “Bart, I want things. A lot of things. Big things. I don’t wanna be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who’ll do anything. A guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.” And what does Bart want? I don’t know what he does want, but he makes it clear what he doesn’t: “I don’t wanna look in that mirror and see nothing but a stickup man staring back at me.”
Together, they make one gun-crazy pair!

  • As Bart prepares to leave, Laurie tells him to kiss her goodbye – because she won’t be there when he gets back. She reclines on the bed, parts her lips seductively, lowers her lids . . .  and the next thing we know, Bart has his gun pointed at some hapless clerk at the Traveler’s Aid.

And that’s the relationship of Bart and Laurie, in a nutshell. Despite Bart’s moral core, he seems powerless to fight Laurie’s forceful personality and his own undeniable attraction for her. And as for Laurie, as much as she can love anyone, she appears to love Bart – but even more than her feeling for her husband, she loves the prospect of the money she can have. And the thrill of doing whatever she has to do to get it. Or, as she herself told Bart, “I’ve been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”

If you’ve never seen this film, or you’ve got a hankering to give it a much-deserved re-watch, you’ll get your chance later this month – it’s airing on Turner Classic Movies on May 15th.  Make an appointment to spend 86 minutes in the company of these gun-crazy kids, Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr.

You know why, don’t you? You only owe it to yourself.

May 6, 2012  12:00pm
by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry

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