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Gun Crazy: The Unshown Heist

Loosely based on the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrows legend, Gun Crazy (1950), directed by Joseph H Lewis , is one of the finest noir films ever made. A low budget B-film in its time, the film, starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall as the outlaw couple, has deservedly acquired cult status since then.

All the typical elements of noir are well in place in Gun Crazy – the electrically charged atmosphere, expressionistic lighting, off-beat camera angles and full on erotic chemistry between its leads. Incidentally, in an interview director Lewis said of the sexual tension the film captured beautifully, “I told John, ‘Your cock’s never been so hard’ and I told Peggy, ‘You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.’ That’s exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions.” The film, full of hold-ups, and where gunplay is substituted for sex, is full of memorable sequences like the meat plant robbery; Cummins makes for one of the genre’s great femme fatales and is really the driving force behind the film, while typical to noir, leading man Dall is the weaker of the two, emotionally.

The highlight of the film, however, is the bank heist sequence. Taken in one single take, we don’t even see the heist and yet, it appears far more dynamic than if we had seen it. In fact, initially the scene was conceived in a more conventional manner with the creation of a bank set, use of bit players and numerous camera set ups to be shot over at least three days, but with the film’s tight budget and limited number of shooting days, Lewis decided to do the sequence differently. He told his producers he could pull this off in a day and not go inside the bank at all. Though there was some opposition to what Lewis had proposed, he convinced them by playing a test he taken on his own time and expense on a 16 mm camera to show them what the sequence might look like. And since it made more sense to them economically (rather than artistically), he got the go ahead.

The bank heist sequence was shot entirely in one long take with people inside the bank alerted to the operation. This one-take shot included the sequence of driving into town to the bank, Dall going into the bank, Cummins distracting and then knocking out a patrolman, and call coming out with them making the get-away. This was done by simulating the interior of a sedan with a stretch Cadillac with room enough to mount the camera and a jockey’s saddle for the cameraman on a greased two-by-twelve board in the back. Lewis kept it fresh by having the actors improvise their dialogue.

The result is one of the great sequences in the history of movie making! As Martin Scorsese once said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” 

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