Gun Crazy [1950] – A Film-Noir Thrill-Ride about Criminal Lovers on the Lam

Moving at breakneak pace, Joseph H. Lewis’ film-noir Gun Crazy (1950) is best known for its stupendous visual flair that’s considered to have set the platform for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Similar to obscure yet fantastic noirs This Gun for Hire (1942, by Frank Tuttle) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer), Gun Crazy isn’t much polished or refined like A-list noirs from John Huston, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, etc. There aren’t cigarette smokes circling poetically, no dark alleys, rain-slicked streets, and elaborate sets. But still Gun Crazy’s exhilaratingly lurid presentation of psycho-sexual themes plus the roller-coaster ride of plot mechanics makes it one of the unique and compulsively watchable film-noir. 

Gun Crazy was director Joseph H. Lewis’ best work, using every brilliant visual tricks at his command though working on a very low-budget. The script was written by Dalton Trumbo (since it was the Hollywood black-list era, Millard Kaufman was used as his front; the credit restored to Trumbo long after he died) and MacKinlay Kantor (‘The Best Years of Our Lives’). There isn’t much when it comes to plot though. It’s a familiar tale of star-crossed lovers, flaunting guns and on-the-run from law. But Lewis’ vision had a spectacular gritty tone which tested the limits and taboos of Hays Code Hollywood - the rigorous censorship guidelines enforced until 1968 which was then replaced by MPAA film rating system.

 Like every protagonist in film-noir universe, the primary players in Gun Crazy possess an unhealthy obsession. For Bart Tare (John Dall), guns are the thing he’s got to have. As a teenager, Bart (Russ Tamblyn) is caught stealing a revolver from a gun shop window display. In the ensuing court session, we get a glimpse into Bart’s strong fixation for guns. Bart’s sister agrees that stealing the revolver was a deplorable thing. But she assures the judge that her brother would never hurt another person or life with it. Bart’s pals too assert the same, narrating events from past to reminisce the boy’s reluctance to shoot at a live target. Bart is sent to reform school and later does his military duty. Now he’s a lanky young man with a great collection of firearms. Bart shoots at some empty bottles with his boyhood pals – Clyde and Dave – and they go to a gun show at the local carnival.

There Bart meets the swaggering and beautiful sharp-shooter, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). The carnival shooting contest between Bart and Annie implies eroticism and a sense of foreplay. Their love and lust for guns and each other makes them hit the road. Of course, they don’t live happily-ever-after. The fiery ‘American dream’ catches up with Annie and she wants a life of ‘action and guts’. Annie slowly persuades Bart to embrace the life of crime in order to make some quick money (the film’s original title was ‘Deadly is the Female’). 

Unlike Bart, who is psychologically incapable of harming others, Annie wouldn’t think a minute before shooting her way through obstacles. The sensuous glow in her eyes gets replaced with wild, manic energy when going through dynamic world of violence (“I told you I’m a bad girl, didn’t I?” croons Annie). The couple hold-up banks and soon their infamous legacy catches the attention of every law official across the nation. Eventually, Annie’s hearty calls for action transitions from grand larceny to murder. Nevertheless, Bart couldn’t let go of her and their downward spiral towards damnation is unstoppable. 

Gun Crazy must be watched to relish director Lewis’ application of minimal resources to create astoundingly effective set-pieces. Take the bank heist sequence shot in a single take: the camera stays inside the car and the robbery happens off-screen. Yet, Lewis pulls off great tension from the scene. There’s also a sense of spontaneity to the sequence, right from the couple’s worry over finding the perfect parking space to Bart shooting up the tires of the police-cars. I also loved the final swamp scene, whose budget conscious set-up worked more brilliantly than a conventional staging. The pursuers are cloaked in the mist with only chaotic sounds heard in the background. It creates a fine sense of discomfort and through mesmerizing close-up shots of vexed Annie, Lewis strongly spells-out her fate. The misfortune of criminal life is effectively conveyed in the scene, Bart and Annie goes dancing. The lovers’ tight embrace in the dancing floor is suddenly replaced with them running in panic through the dark streets to evade the lawmen.

The dialogues maintains the hard-boiled tone (“We go together, like guns and ammunition!”, muses Bart). Thematically, Gun Crazy has all the generalized form of Freudian psychoanalysis and psycho-sexual behavior.  There’s collection of phallic imagery and implicit erotic displays. It flirts a bit with misogyny, presenting a woman who actively lures a man and causes his fall. And, all these elements are presented with a touch of gritty, pulpiness of a B-movie which can either entertain you or push you to interpret its political incorrectness and ‘vulgarization’. 

I was thoroughly engrossed by the imagery and the rapid pace, despite the supposed thematic flaws. For all the accusation of misogyny, ultimately bad-ass femme fatale characters of film-noir does have its appeal more than the idealized or prettified women, played by Greer Garson in ‘Mrs. Miniver’, Bette Davis in ‘Dark Victory’, etc. Both the central performances from Dall and Peggy Cummins are riveting and dynamic. Peggy’s Annie is one of the baddest of all film-noir female characters. There’s something animalistic and psychotic in her eyes that adds to the allure of this highly stylized piece of cinema. 

Altogether, Gun Crazy (87 minutes) is a bewitching tale of criminal lovers with a stupendous visual flair that takes us on a roller-coaster ride. It’s one of the classic works of film-noir, possessing all its gratifying pulpy sensibilities. 

Drunken Angel [1948] – A Minor yet Engrossing Kurosawa Classic

Drunkel Angel (‘Yoidore tenshi’, 1948) although not one of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed masterpieces, is definitely a landmark cinema in the director’s oeuvre. The film marked the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, a dynamic actor famous for playing righteous samurai characters and for his on-screen showcase of explosive rage. The collaboration lasted over 16 films, and until the 19th century drama Red Beard (1965). Drunken Angel was also considered as the director’s breakthrough movie since he made it on his own terms, tackling head-on the pervading corruption in post-World War II Japanese society. Drunken Angel is a melodrama, chronicling the delicate bond between a brash, young yakuza guy (Toshiro Mifune) and an older alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura). But the dynamism visible in Kurosawa’s aesthetic approach turns this drama into one of the director’s intriguing early stylistic experiments.

Drunken Angel is set around a yakuza-controlled black market square where bars and dance-halls loudly broadcast American pop tunes, and a fetid swamp occupies the center of neighborhood. In fact, the film opens with the shot of large cesspool (in close-up) which constantly bubbles. It becomes the fitting metaphor for post-war Japan’s sickly state of affairs. The swamp is a  character in itself as Kurosawa often uses the image as a transition device to chart the gangster’s self-destruction. The mosquito-ridden swamp also literally passes off disease to neighborhood members, particularly the vulnerable, mal-nourished children who use the ghoulish place as a playground. The gruff yet well-meaning slum doctor Sanada lives near the swamp and does his best to redeem the surrounding atmosphere, even though he very often fails.

Matsunaga, the local yakuza leader, comes to Sanada’s clinic to treat a bullet wound. Dr. Sanada is a very blunt guy and decries the young yakuza’s lifestyle without fearing for violent reactions. Sanada warns Matsunaga about the onslaught of tuberculosis, and to halt his drinking habit. The erratic gangster tries to beat-up the doctor for his blunt talk, and the doctor responds by throwing things at him. Although Matsunaga continues to drink and party, his worsening condition takes him back to the clinic. He’s once again castigated by the doctor and angrily leaves the premises. Nevertheless, gradually Matsunaga comes to trust the doctor.

Furthermore, Dr. Sanada becomes increasingly concerned for the gangster. At the same time, circumstances work against Matsunaga’s well being. An older, wayward crime boss named Okada (Reisaburo Yakamoto) returns from jail and regains his position, which was awarded to Matsunaga. Okada’s return also spells trouble for the doctor, since he is shielding the crime boss’ abused mistress Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), who now works as the doctor’s nurse. And, Matsunaga despite coughing up blood and on the doorstep of death feels he must ensure Sanada’s safety.

Drunken Angel works as a cultural and social critique, taking a jab at both the ‘old’ feudalistic concepts of honor & loyalty and war-torn nation’s struggle against rampant westernization. In fact, the American occupation of Japan ended only in 1952. Dr. Sanada scowls at Matsunaga’s mention of yakuza code of honor. The young hoodlum’s frantic belief in the gang hierarchy could easily be connected with the betrayal of feudal system which only escalated the war efforts. Okada is a literal representation of obsolete feudalism, trying to once again gain his authority in a rapidly changing neighborhood.

The dingy corridors of night-club and bars stand on the other extreme, conveying the general corruption brought upon by the occupying American forces. Akira Kurosawa kept on returning to these ruined corners of Tokyo. As a matter of fact, Kurosawa followed Drunken Angel with The Quiet Duel (1949), which was about a young doctor (Mifune) who accidentally contracts syphilis while operating on a patient.  The Lower Depths (‘Donzoko’, 1957), based on Maxim Gorky’s play was set on the edge of a garbage dump. Perhaps, the most scintillating portrait of Tokyo’s shanty towns among Kurosawa’s filmography was in Clickety-Clack (‘Dodes’ka-den’, 1970); Kurosawa’s first color film has interestingly focused on urban trash heap.

Drunken Angel was Mifune’s fourth film. In his previous films, Mifune played volatile hoodlums and hence he was cast according to type. But only under Kurosawa’s direction, the actor was able to bring forth a humanism and longing to the otherwise one-dimensional character. Wearing a flashy white suit, Mifune often bursts into the scenes with great power that he could be mistaken as the titular character The actor actually had a small part, but Kurosawa impressed by Mifune allowed the character to share equal screen-space with Dr. Sanada.

As always, Shimura - appeared in 21 of Kurosawa’s films - subtly embodies the role of a mentor/spiritual guide. The frustration, gruffness, and tenacity Shimura imparts to Dr. Sanada keep the character far from being a tedious, saintlike man. Visually, Kurosawa’s presentation of the dreary atmosphere bestows a chilling and somber movie experience. The first confrontational scene between Matsunaga and Sanada, the nightclub dance scene, and eventually the frenzied fight between Okada and Matsunaga which uses bit of silent-film aesthetics are all some examples of the director’s galvanic staging techniques.

While Kurosawa concentrated on pointless cruelty and irrationality of the mankind in Drunken Angel, he does end the film with a quick optimistic ending. Actress Yoshiko Kuga who has worked with Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Nagisa Oshima, etc plays a cameo role as a feisty school girl fighting TB. Dr. Sanada considers her a symbol of rationality and will power, challenging the overall animalistic tendencies of the post-war society. The doctor leaves the lingering thoughts of failure and grief and accompanies the young girl through the cacophony of black-market to buy sweets. 

P.S. the censors were alleged to have imposed that final ‘optimistic’ flourish.

The Joke [1969] – A Politically Pointed Character Study

In an unequal society, the powerless find solace in making jokes about the political establishment. But in a nation-state taken over by totalitarianism even jokes can be used to escalate punitive measures against individuals. Jaromil Jires’ 1969 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s first novel The Joke (‘Zert’) showcases how an authoritarian regime’s intolerance of humor crushes an individual and alters his human nature. “Optimism is the opiate of the masses. A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky”, writes college student Ludvik Jahn in a postcard to troll his exaggeratedly proper communist girlfriend’s recollection of her experiences at the communal summer school. 

The riposte also sort of reflects Ludvik’s frustration at not being able to bed the girl. The humorless girl forwards the postcard to the local party channels. Taunted by his friends-turned-harshest-critics, Ludvik is promptly expelled from the Communist party and banished to military labor group, where he serves six years in the mines. The middle-aged Ludvik (Josef Somr) now thinks he has stumbled upon a perfect chance to take revenge on his ex-comrade Pavel Zemanek (Ludek Munzar) who has played a vital role in his ostracization.

The control and credibility of the reigning communist apparatus in late the 1950s Czechoslovakia weakened considerably. The film artists rushed to take advantage of this situation. The Czech New Wave came into existence which was mostly quashed alongside the hopes for a liberalized and reformed socialism when Soviet tanks invaded Prague, in August 1968, and brutally reinforced a totalitarian regime. Jaromil Jires belongs to the generation of brilliant and young Czech artists whose non-comformist vision broadened the aesthetic boundaries of intellectual cinema. 

Jaromil Jires, like many of the fresh-faced film-makers of the era - Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec, Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer, Evald Scholm, etc - graduated from Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). Jires obtained director’s and cameraman’s diplomas. After directing various shorts, he made his first feature-film The Cry (‘Kirik’) in 1964. Some critics argue this was first film of the Czechoslovak New Wave, others argue it was Stefan Uher’s 1962 film ‘The Sun In a Net‘).

The Cry was near plot-less film which beautifully chronicles fragments of a young couple’s memories. The memories are triggered as a result of the brief separation between husband and wife as she is admitted to the maternity hospital. The Cry isn’t groundbreaking in terms of themes, but a simple romantic drama boosted by a supreme visual style and editing. Following the debut-feature, Jires directed a segment in Pearls of the Deep (1965), an anthology based on various short stories of popular Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. 

The Joke (1969) was a more politically committed art from Jires, which although was made during the political liberalization of the 1968 Prague Spring, released at a disruptive time and found itself banned until the collapse of Soviet Union. Jires didn’t leave his country after the repression of the Prague Spring but his libertarian views led to film-making ban. After ‘The Joke’ he immediately made the wonderful surrealist fantasy ‘Valerie and Her Weeks of Wonders’. Jaromil Jires returned to direction at the end of the 1980s.

With The Joke, Jires continued his inventive method of meshing together the present and past. Jires and his editor (Josef Valusiak) depicts Ludvik’s history through frequently intruding flashbacks as if Ludvik’s entire thought process in the present is intricately tied to the troubled past. Similar jarring inter-cut flashbacks were also expertly applied in Karel Kachyna’s 1970 film ‘The Ear’. Ludvik concocts a simple revenge scheme: to seduce Pavel’s wife Helena (Jana Dietova) with whom he has a chance encounter. Ludvik wants to humiliate the man who presided over his trial. Pavel is now a popular professor of Marxism and Helena seems an easy target for Ludvik because she openly declares her frustration and feelings of loneliness. As Ludvik attempts to execute his careful plan, we are often obstructed by the rush of his past memories.

 Josef Somr does a great job in turning Ludvik into an unpleasant, oleaginous creature. However, Jires elicits bit of sympathy when we gradually comprehend the truth behind Ludvik’s pariah status and his acrimonious attitude. We don’t see the face of young, college-going Ludvik but the reproaches directed against his young self are neatly juxtaposed with indifferent, bored expressions of the older Ludvik. It feels like as if the middle-aged Ludvik haven’t still escaped from the scowls of those privileged, elite ‘comrades’. Furthermore, the memories of youth and despair of the present ostensibly veers to existential matters.

The marvelous juxtapositions not only addresses how Ludvik is caught in a limbo filled with hate, but also points out the ironies existing within the alleged socialist state. Positive song and music about revolutions are overlapped by scenes of state-sanctioned cruelties in army labor camps. Jires’ finely balanced perception also sees gentle folk music getting drowned by the rock music, played in transistors by the drunk teenagers of post-revolution generation. Eventually, the narrative’s heaviest irony comes from Ludvik’s endeavor to use sex as a weapon. The meeting with Pavel offers Ludvik nothing but more bitterness. The Stalinist has updated himself with ‘bourgeois’ ways and free-love, but the unjustly punished individual is suffocating under fantasies of vengeance and venting his rage in the wrongest manner possible. 

Overall, The Joke (80 minutes) presents the astute vision of an individual in a totalitarian society, overwhelmed by tide of displeasing memories and repressed feelings. 

Il Divo [2008] – A Beautifully Shot Labyrinthine Political Drama

When I first started consuming the works of Italian film-maker Paolo Sorrentino, after watching his acclaimed feature The Great Beauty (2013), his 2008 political drama Il Divo was a total anomaly. It's beyond the strangeness sensory overload of richness we usually come across in Sorrentino’s works. I expected a biopic of Giulio Andreotti (1919-2013), a seven-times Prime Minister of Italy, and served 19 times as Minister (in 1991 he was made senator for life). Mr. Andreotti was a leading politician of Italy, who reached pinnacle of his political power in the 1970s when political violence and repressive policies in Italy were also at the peak. 

Referred as ‘Beelzebub-the devil’ (among many other unsavory nicknames), Andreotti, the statesman who was the face of Italy for decades, in the mid-1990s was put on trial (in Palermo, Sicily) for his alleged association with mafia and organized crime (resulting in some high-profile assassinations). Although Andreotti was eventually cleared of the charges (partly due to statue-barred limitations), the accusations leveled at him doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

Il Divo (the nickname of Julius Caesar, suggesting “the divine one”) wasn’t certainly a conventional biopic that sought to ‘interpret’ the enigmatic nature of Giulio Andreotti or unveil the hidden truths. Sorrentino, as usual, is at his flashiest, masterfully alternating between frenetic and glacial pace (a mesmerizing visual style that reminds us of Frederico Fellini and David Fincher). But by rejecting a reductive treatment of Andreotti (which would rely upon melodrama), Sorrentino preserves the enigma of his central character, and recruits us viewers to investigate the historical and ethical issues surrounding the miasma of Italian politics. By the movie’s end, we are unsure about whether Andreotti is a perfect symbol of corrupted power or just a misunderstood and persecuted politician, the one who has lived long enough to ‘become the villain’. Il Divo achieves that ambivalence despite presenting a critical study on Andreotti’s sprawling public life.

Narrative-wise, Sorrentino takes the Francesco Rosi approach (part of the ‘cinema politico’ trend that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s). Similar to Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, The Mattei Affair), Sorrentino deftly employs Andreotti’s persona to concentrate on the mechanisms of power. Rosi completely rejected the binary contrasts of biopic. He was said to have used familiar historical subjects (of Italy) to wield a ‘film inquest’ rather than ‘glamorizing’ or ‘interpreting’ their lives. Conceptually, Sorrentino brilliantly adopts the Rosi method, eschewing clich├ęd narrative tactics to establish the subject’s private life (or domestic milieu). However, Sorrentino’s approach differs from Rosi’s in one distinct way, as Sorrentino’s stylistic strategies turns Il Divo into a intriguing dead-pan comedy, unlike Rosi’s unflinchingly somber inquiries.

While I had a very hard time following the narrative of Il Divo the first time, the exploration of Italian political cinema from the 1960s and 1970s (the works of Rosi, Petri, Zurlini, Scola), alongside some reading helped me understand the movie better in the re-watches. Il Divo is so grounded in the Italian political reality that one can wonder about the grind of deeply exploring Italian cinema and history to just understand a single Sorrentino movie. Such quests might seem meaningless, but the utter confusion in watching Il Divo (the 1st time) actually led me to discover some of the hidden gems of political cinema. But even if you aren’t interesting in working hard to understand the nuances of the narrative, Sorrentino’s visual acuity and poker-faced Toni Servillo’s incredibly hypnotizing central performance will mostly keep you engaged.      

The majority of Il Divo’s narrative is set in the 1990s as Andreotti and his inner-circle of men (known as ‘Andreotti Faction’) in the Christian Democrat Party are linked with corruption scandals, and testimonies connecting the party to the Mafia. The party no longer survives as the disreputability led to its disbandment. In one of the imagined monologues, Sorrentino allows his character to shed his enigmatic mask, and confess that he’s linked with 236 deaths, including the brutal murder of Aldo Moro (in 1978), Andreotti’s political rival, who was kidnapped by the Red Brigades (far-left terrorist organization) and Andreotti shockingly refused to negotiate a ransom. Largely shot inside elegant baroque rooms (by gifted cinematographer Luca Bigazzi), full of expensive and beautiful interiors, Sorrentino captures the alienation and barrenness in his subject’s life.   

Overall, Il Divo (110 minutes) uses idiosyncratic visual forms to produce an unconventional biopic that’s critical of a powerful political figure without relying on pathos and melodrama.