Few films in the history of cinema have fetishized the sleek engineering beauty and violent power of firearms with the same aesthetic charm as Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy. The film posits guns as a central part of the main character’s origin story, as a young Barton, caught in a downpour, admires and fixates on a gun in a store front window. This keenly erotic moment informs the rest of the film and even suggests a sentient to the weapons themselves. Framed from the interior perspective of a locked store (with the gun arguably maintaining the point of view), the shot only shifts when young Barton gazes upon the weapon, as the camera shifts forward with a dolly shot more fitting for romance than a gun.
The phallic nature of guns has not been lost on filmmakers and has long been associated with sexual prowess or lack thereof. In Bonnie and Clyde, the male outlaw struggles with erectile dysfunction and works through his sexual frustration with a weapon in hand. In Gun Crazy, the couple doesn’t struggle sexually — far from it — the gun becomes an apt metaphor for their doomed romance that embraces a “Live fast, die young” ideology of adrenaline-fueled crime and sex.
Lewis’ filmography has always been a bit under the radar of mainstream noir, and his work often tackles rampant capitalist ideologies as a central idea. In a society where the American way of life is defined through material possession and instant gratification, crime becomes a strong way of articulating class imbalance and alienation. Though beautiful people, neither Barton nor Annie fits into the “normal” society. They work and live on the fringes, and while they might not aspire to live in a house with a white picket fence, their disenfranchisement comes from social conditions that limit their worth due to their social standing. The intensity of their relationship lies in the fact they can no longer turn for support or happiness in civilized society because they are no longer accepted. Talent, nobility, kindness are no sure-fire ways of gaining respect and moving upwards — but money is.
In the film’s misty final stretch, the characters are lost in a dense fog. They anticipate their own demise, but they latch onto their weapons knowing very well that surrendering is no longer an option. Their guns become the only way they can maintain any sort of power in the world, and to abandon them represents a resignation of their freedoms. I wouldn’t argue that Lewis made a pro-gun film, but one that suggests when accumulation of wealth determines personal value, those at the bottom are left powerless. Guns only go so far in securing Barton and Annie’s future, as they cannot overcome the violence of the system and the power of class oppression. Guns represent a false sense of power that evens the playing field only marginally, thus strengthening the American resolve towards capital based individualism.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.