We don’t see John Dall court Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy. We get to see them meet cute when Dall—back home after the Army (and reform school before the service)—and his pals go to carnival and see Cummins’s shootist act. Dall was in reform school for breaking into a store to steal a pistol and has been obsessed with guns his entire life. He won’t kill anything—there’s an exceptional flashback sequence while young Dall (played by a wonderfully tragic Russ Tamblyn) is in court and everyone testifies about his love of guns and his abhorrence of violence. He’d never use them to shoot anyone, everyone tells the judge (a very good Morris Carnovsky), he just wants them around all the time and maybe to, like, shoot the channel switcher on a TV someday.
But never to kill anyone.
The film never addresses Dall’s military service in that regard and is able to avoid it because right after Dall becomes bewitched with Cummins, he joins the traveling carnival as another shootist. He quickly starts romancing Cummins, running afoul of carnival owner Berry Kroeger who’s been blackmailing Cummins into his company and has no plans on letting up. Kroeger is the one who gives the insight into what the courtship must look like—they look at each other, Kroeger complains, “like a couple of wild animals.” Thanks to Kroeger, the whirlwind courtship ends with Dall and Cummins married and jobless. They try to make an honest go of it, but once the money runs out—they try to beat Vegas (Cummins is a British expat and in some ways more naive than the very naive Dall) and fail—Cummins gives Dall an ultimatum.
Either they start sticking places up for cash or she’s leaving him. It doesn’t take Dall much thought. It takes him a little bit of thought and we get to see it on his face and we get to see Cummins waiting for his decision because director Lewis is all about how the couple is experiencing their tragedy. But pretty soon they’re sticking up everything from hotels to banks, but never hurting anyone because Dall says no killing.
There’s eventually a great conversation between Dall and Cummins about the no-killing thing, which turns into this great contrast of their respective naiveties as well as a fine character development reveal for Dall. The film’s got a very simple, very linear plot with director Lewis and screenwriters MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo focusing on the character relationship between Dall and Cummins when they’re not sticking up the joint, rather coming off the high.
Towards the end of the film, we get to see what Kroeger was talking about with the wild animal looks. At least from Cummins; we’ve seen them some from Dall, who’s usually the one trying to keep the couple from breaking apart under the stress, but the scene where we finally get to see Cummins gazing hungrily on Dall. It is indeed a little scary. It’s closest to the terrified look Cummins gets when she’s feeling cornered and like she needs to shoot her way out, not worrying about who or what the bullets are going to hit. But Dall’s not in the same place as Cummins, who’s alone, a stranger in a strange land; Dall’s got loving big sis Anabel Shaw and his hometown pals, cop Harry Lewis and reporter Nedrick Young. The film occasionally checks in with them during the montages to show how Dall’s life of crime is affecting the loved ones who never gave up him for being, you know, Gun Crazy.
Dall and Cummins keep trying to get stable financially but something always goes wrong and they always need to pull another heist, leading to some exquisite chases sequences, both in cars and on foot. Lewis, cinematographer Russell Harlan, and editor Harry Gerstad are always inventive with how they present Dall and Cummins in rooms versus outdoors versus in cars. They’re trapped together in rooms; outdoors they’re free, in cars they’re hunting and hunted. Lots of extreme close-ups, perfectly lighted, perfectly cut, lots of very particular composition where the actors work together in an unbroken shot. Lewis perfectly balances the showiness of the characters with the intimate. The character development in Gun Crazy is one of its reassuring successes—the film implies it’s going to stick with it, even after it could get rid of it—for a movie called Gun Crazy, it’s not particularly sensational in how it depicts Dall and Cummins (outside when they’re running around dressed in Old West outfits). Lewis and the writers always make sure the film’s an endless fount of empathy and compassion… all while making no promises about hope or redemption.
It’s an exceptional film with singular direction from Lewis. He makes it all happen. I mean, the script does quite a bit, but Lewis (and his crew) make it magic.