(director: Joseph H. Lewis; screenwriters: MacKinlay Kantor from his story in the “Saturday Evening Post”/Lillard Kaufman is the uncredited Dalton Trumbo-he was blacklisted; cinematographer: Russell Harlan; editor: Harry Gerstad; cast: Peggy Cummins (Annie Laurie Starr), John Dall (Bart Tare), Berry Kroeger (Packett), Morris Carnovsky (Judge Willoughby), Anabel Shaw (Ruby Tare), Harry Lewis (Clyde Boston), Nedrick Young (Dave Allister), Trevor Bardette (Sheriff Clyde Boston), Anne O’Neal (Miss Sifert), Don Beddoe (Car Owner from Chicago), Harry Hayden (Mr. Mallenberg), Mickey Little (Bart Tare age 7), Russ Tamblyn (Bart Tare: age 14), Paul Frison (Clyde Boston: age 14), Dave Bair (Dave Allister: age 14), Robert Osterloh (Hampton Policeman), Stanley Prager (Clown), Virginia Farmer (Miss Wynn, Teacher); Runtime: 87; United Artists; 1950)
“There was a raw innocence about this film…”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Warning: spoilers throughout.
Bart Tare (John Dall) has always been obsessed with guns. He was raised by his older sister Ruby (Anabel), who bought him his first BB gun as a child. On a rainy night in the southwestern small-town he lives in the 14-year-old Bart (Russ Tamblyn) sees a beautiful gun in a hardware store window and smashes the window with a rock to get it, but he is caught by the sheriff (Trevor) when he stumbles in a puddle. The judge (Carnovsky) sends him to reform school despite Ruby’s plea for mercy, bringing up the point that he was raised without a father figure. He’ in a juvenile prison for four years and then he joins the army. Other than that incident, Bart has shown no tendency for violence or breaking the law — he just feels good when he’s shooting a gun, something he is an expert in. He feels compelled to always have a gun, as it makes him feel important. But in the opening robbery scene, it is shown that Bart will have little chance of overcoming his obsession. At one point, when Bart’s caught, he stretches his arms out Christ-like. This shows the symbolism reached for by director Joseph H. Lewis.
Returning home for the first-time since he was sent away to reform school, Bart meets again his childhood buddies: David Allister (Young) is now a newspaper reporter, and Clyde Boston (Paul) is now a sheriff following the path of his father. His father is the one who arrested him. They both thought the army would have been a natural place for Bart to make a career, but he tells them he got bored with showing soldiers how to fire a gun and plans to look for work with Remington.
The boys decide to go to a travelling carnival that is in town that night and when an Annie Oakley-type shooter from England, Annie Laurie Starr (Cummins), challenges anyone in the audience to a pistol-shooting contest, Bart accepts the challenge and wins. She talks her boss, a sleazy carnival operator, Packy (Berry), into hiring him, as the two fall in love on first sight. The intimacy that grows between the two infuriates Packy, who has his eyes on Laurie, holding over-her-head the knowledge that she killed someone in a St. Louis robbery. Packy tells her he will go to the police if she doesn’t continue to give him sex. When Packy grapples with Laurie, Bart fires his gun at him and the two are fired. Bart decides to marry Laurie that night, even though he was warned by a worldly carnival clown (Prager) that he doesn’t know anything about that woman–that she’s a bad one.
It now becomes a crime spree road movie, or a love-on-the run film. Laurie demands the need for action and money, threatening to leave him if he can’t live up to her expectations. Bart has fallen so much in love with her, that even though it isn’t in his gentle nature to be a criminal he goes along with her robbery schemes. They rob a hotel, a liquor store, and a gas station, but she wants more money. For their next robbery, they carefully come up with a more developed scheme. Laurie hitches a ride from an older gentleman visiting California from Illinois (Beddoe) who is suggestively coming on to her, and while conversing she casually pulls her pistol out of her purse and steals his Cadillac. Which they will use for their next robbery so the cops can’t get their real license plates, as they bound the victim in their old car on the roadside. The robbery takes place in Hampton, where they rob the local bank dressed in their showbiz cowboy outfits and escape when she conks the policeman (Osterloh) who is standing in front of the bank, karate-style on the neck, thereby knocking him out. The getaway scene is dramatically filmed from the backseat of their car. The crime becomes very sexually stimulating to them as she becomes more and more passionate with Bart, even as their escape is taking place.
After another harrowing robbery their pictures appear in the newspaper as Packy recognizes them and names them as the wanted criminals sought, even mentioning the killing she did in St. Louis. Their names go over the wire service, so that his hometown of Cashville is now aware of his crime spree. After spending some time on-the-run, they plan one more big robbery and have hopes of getting enough money from that one to retire from crime (at least he feels that way). They both get jobs in an Armour meat-packing plant in New Mexico and rob the payroll office but this time the office manager, Miss Sifert (O’Neal), rings the burglar alarm in the middle of the robbery and Laurie plugs her. In their getaway, it also becomes necessary for her to shoot a company guard who is in their way. She tells Bart, that she uses her gun to kill when scared. Bart comments: “Two people dead, just so we can live without working!”
The two make plans to split-up for a few months and then get together again but they can’t go their separate ways, having fallen too passionately in love with each other. In town, they are staying in a California hotel near the ocean and have made arrangements by bribing some officials to get across the border into Mexico. Bart hopes to use the money to buy a ranch in Mexico and maybe raise a family there. Celebrating their changing luck by going on some amusement rides and then dancing in the fairgrounds, they notice some police investigators have spotted the marked money from the robbery they were using and they realize that they can’t go back to their hotel where they kept the stolen loot. They are now broke and on-the-run again, as they flee town by carjacking a cab and then riding the rails out of town.
With no place else to run to, they return to his hometown and force their way into Ruby’s place. Ruby has children there and is not pleased to see them. The neighbors notice Ruby has her blinds down and they inform Clyde about it. Clyde brings Dave along to Ruby’s place, suspecting Bart is there and that they can talk him into peacefully surrendering. The two desperadoes have no intention of surrendering and after locking Ruby in the garage, they try to escape by going up a mountain road. When trapped overnight in a swamp chased by dogs and a police posse, Dave and Clyde find them in the old hiding spot they used as youths. When Laurie tries to kill them Bart shoots her, the only killing he ever does and is shot in return by the sheriff who mistakenly thinks he was shooting at them. The swamp was used because this low-budget film couldn’t afford the money to pay extras and the swamp scene would require only a limited cast.
As film noir this hard-boiled story is much superior to the more popular and more critically acclaimed “Bonnie and Clyde,” which covered the same territory: amour fou- the running away together by lovers. Both films were based on the real lives of the infamous criminal couple. This fast-action film, featuring a notorious femme fatale and her tainted film noir lover, celebrates their disregard for the law and their insatiable appetite for their own desires which causes them to disregard middle-class values. They act with a sense of bold impropriety. The Nation’s former iconoclastic film critic, Manny Farber, observed that films like this were accepted by the surrealists and the new brand of intellectual youths, revolting against the middlebrow critics who called this merely a B- “pulp” film. He complimented films of this kind by endearingly calling them, “perceptive trash.”
There was a raw innocence about this film, despite the unsophisticated acting by the leads, creating a special kind of appeal by its lively pulse beating to the rebellious couple’s resentment of the Establishment. It should be remembered that this film came out at a time before there was rock & roll, civil rights demonstrations, and the Vietnam War protest movement; that even if the film appears dated, it still retains its revolutionary spirit of youth being forced to find their own identity in the world.
REVIEWED ON 1/20/2000 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/