Debates about how to best reduce domestic gun violence are a major topic in American culture right now. Dangerous men are terrorizing their families and communities; disaffected students are terrorizing their schools; and delusional, entitled, self-proclaimed "incels" are terrorizing women. It is a crisis. Some day I will probably write more about the political question of how to solve the crisis, but for now what I'd like to do instead is take a look back at Joseph H. Lewis' tragically romantic noir film Gun Crazy (1950). Sixty-eight years later, it's an oddly relevant movie. Because it's about America; it's about toxic masculinity; and, well, it's about guns.
[This post is adapted from a currently unpublished paper entitled "Sexuality, Machinery, and Masculinity in Gun Crazy," which I submitted as coursework during my MFA program at Boston University.]
It's not about sex.
Though it seems obvious that a film called "Gun Crazy" is fundamentally about guns, not everyone would agree with my analysis. In fact, in every piece of scholarly commentary or popular criticism I have found about it—and I've read a lot, in the context of a research project for a class last semester on gangster films—the main idea seems to be that, at its core, this is a deeply psychosexual film. Most agree that the film, written by Dalton Trumbo and KacKinlay Kantor, uses the image of the gun as an obvious Freudian symbol—phallic, erect, and dangerous—and that the film’s main theme is an exploration of the “sexual, almost feral energy” between Bart Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), both of whom have a “lifelong, flagrantly eroticized obsession with guns.” After all, while directing, Lewis famously instructed his actors in explicitly sexual terms (“Your cock’s never been so hard,” he told John Dall, before turning to Peggy Cummins and saying: “you’re a female dog in heat, and you want him”). A few decades later, in an interview with Danny Peary, Lewis recalled: “That’s exactly how I talked to them, and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions.” Despite all of this apparent consensus—even from the director himself—I am not convinced that sexuality is an adequate or sufficient lens through which we can understand Gun Crazy. The gun is phallic, of course; I cannot dispute that. My purpose here, however, is to argue that the gun is also a machine, in the sense that it is a dehumanizing and amoral agent: in this film, the image of the gun works not only to invoke psychosexual tension but also to expose the cold, mechanical efficiency of American modernization, industrialization, and militarization. Gun Crazy is about the inexorably dehumanizing and violent (and, yes, sexual) ramifications of the American Dream. And it is also about the ways in which these ramifications are connected to a particularly toxic brand of American masculinity. Put simply: this film is about the terrible machinery of American society.
A man in a box.
The first thing we see after Gun Crazy’s title sequence is an adolescent boy (young Bart Tare, portrayed by Russ Tamblyn), stealing a handgun from a hardware store. The camera stays inside the store, looking out of the soon-to-be-shattered window at young Bart as he makes his move with a mix of nervousness and exhilaration. Through its visual style, the scene tells us that while he is exuberant and bold, Bart is clearly not in control: he is constantly surrounded by deep shadows, trapped between harsh lines, or “boxed in” by frame-within-a-frame compositions e.g. the store window. And soon after grabbing his loot, he trips and falls clumsily to the ground, only to discover that he has been watched the whole time. The scene ends with a close-up of his terrified face, and we see him realize that he has been caught. Throughout this whole scene, everything is presented nonverbally: we only get non-diegetic, minor-key music (orchestral, ominous, and dramatic) and diegetic rainfall (torrential, unyielding, and oppressive), both of which are occasionally punctuated by the crash of breaking glass or by the splash of a gun falling onto the flowing river of a city street. We understand Bart’s situation not because of what is said—or professed, or thought, or narrated—but by the simple geometry of his surroundings, the violent destructiveness of his crime, the harsh abruptness of his fall, and the transparent vulnerability of his immature, rain-soaked visage. Put another way: this scene is about physical and mechanical realities—rather than psychological, ideological, or emotional ones. And thus, the film is situating us right away in a world run by physicality, machinery, and a sense of Newtonian inevitability.
Soon after this brief sequence, we hear our first line of dialogue, from Ruby (Bart’s sister, played by Anabel Shaw): “Judge, I guess you know how it is,” she says. “I’ve been trying to take care of him. But I guess I never earned enough to buy the things for him that other boys had. But he was good. He was always good. Never cried or nothing.”
Here, Ruby sets forth a pretty precise operational definition of two things: 1) what it means to be taken care of (namely, to have comparative material wealth); and 2) what it means to be a “good” boy (namely, to not cry). In this brief moment, the film gives us her ideological perspective (and by extension, an approximation of the ideological perspective of society at large) regarding American materialism and American masculinity. Both materialism and masculinity are described as ideally mechanical. That is, to be appropriately materialistic is to comply with the machine of capitalism, like some sort of cog; and to be appropriately masculine is to withhold emotional vulnerability, like some sort of automaton.
Feeling awful good inside.
But Bart wants to be neither a cog nor an automaton. He has a complicated relationship with the machine. It seems throughout the film that Bart yearns for societal acceptance; he wants to excel. Maybe this means attracting a crowd of awestruck peers in grade school, or capturing Laurie’s sexual attention at a carnival, or eventually settling down and starting a family (the iconic “white picket fence” version of the American Dream). No matter what form it takes, these desires are all really the same thing: Bart wants to be seen as capable and successful. Guns give him that feeling. As he explains to Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky), guns make him feel “awful good inside, like [he is] somebody.” It should be noted, though, that this feeling (at least at first) is strictly about confidence and competence; it is not really a vehicle for angsty, anti-establishment sentiments, nor is it about rugged, radical independence. Bart is not like Tony in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), aroused by the violently emancipating power of the gun. Remember, the boy even willingly surrenders his weapon to Sheriff Boston (Trevor Bardette), who later recalls matter-of-factly, “he handed it right over,” as if such an action were obvious. This goes to show that, at least in his youth, Bart buys into the dominant discourses of tradition, authority, and deference (we even see this “buy-in” echoed somewhat in Bart’s adult life, as he assures Laurie: “That’s the way I want it,” indicating that he intends to “follow the rules,” so to speak, and properly marry her). So, he is willing in some ways to be part of the machine. But he is not willing to be defined by it. He is not traditionally materialistic (in fact, he seems entirely ambivalent towards money), and he is not traditionally masculine, either (instead, he is vulnerable, emotional, doubtful, and remorseful; furthermore, throughout the film he is subservient to Laurie, yielding to her publicly, privately, intellectually, and sexually). Bart’s weapon of chose isn’t like James Cagney’s well-placed punches, James Stewart’s well-articulated arguments, or James Bond’s well-timed double-entendres. Instead, the James he most resembles is Dean: which is to say that his version of masculinity is anguished, nervous, and moody. In this way, Bart is quite unlike the stereotypical gangster film protagonist.
Proximity and inadequacy.
Bart has a complicated relationship with the smaller, symbolic machine—the gun itself—too. He knows it is dangerous, but he is nevertheless intoxicated by it. We hear Ruby tell the story of how he shot a small bird as a child, and how the experience filled him with guilt. (His friends testify that he later refused to shoot a mountain lion.) And his teacher recalls that when the boy brought a gun to school, he had trouble explaining why he needed it. Bart’s teacher shrugs and suggests that this attachment must be something similar to the ways in which other boys feel attached to a harmonica or a baseball bat: it is something that he just “had to have.” She recalls his insistent but simple defense: “it’s my gun. I earned the money for it, and I’m not gonna give it to anybody.” What we see in these anecdotes and flashbacks is that Bart has trouble confronting the lethal realities of the machine he holds in his hands, and yet, he is somehow drawn to it. The cold metal contraption reminds him of his economic autonomy (“I earned the money for it”), and it gives him a sense of independence or agency (“I’m not gonna give it to anybody”). And yet, undeniably, the thrill of potential danger excites him just as much as the illusion of control. Consider the first scene in which he meets Laurie: he grins delightedly, almost viciously, when she returns his gaze and “shoots” him. Bart’s obsession with the gun therefore cannot be separated from the violence inherent in the reality of what a gun is; he does not crave death, but proximity to death is what makes his proficiency exciting.
American society does not know what to do with Bart’s desires, his values, or his skills. If we were to take a page from other critics’ and scholars’ work, we might shrug this off as an evident sexual metaphor: Bart is sexually misunderstood, and American prudishness represses him. Or perhaps “the world cannot tolerate [Bart’s and Laurie’s] free impulses,” and the couple’s crimes are therefore their way of “asserting their only means of discovering what it’s like to be alive.” But again, this is not just a film about sexual repression: it is also a film about how the machine of America is ill-equipped to give Bart what he needs. The system tries to grind him up and turn him into something “acceptable,” and it does not work. They put him through reform school (trying to turn his lust for danger into something productive and prosocial), but he does not seem to be reformed; they put him through the Army (trying to turn his skillset into something patriotic and communicable), but he does not seem to be militarized. His loyalty cannot be transformed into nationalism, and his obsession cannot be turned into a military asset. Or, to put it another way: Bart’s infatuation with guns cannot be cured or redirected, because a gun is literally a killing machine, and it cannot be anything else. Every attempt to offer Bart some other path—some path that does not inevitably lead to destruction—gives him only a sense of profound boredom.
For this reason, Judge Willoughby’s explanation feels absurd. He says that shooting in and of itself is not wrong, but that in Bart it has “turned into a dangerous mania.” He explains: “we all want things, Bart. But our possession of them has to be regulated by law.” Willoughby’s moral argument appears to be that even if wanting is natural, illegal wanting is dangerous. In other words, he is saying that it is the machinery of the American legal system that determines whether a thing is right or wrong. But tell that to Bart’s real-life counterpart, John Dall, whose romantic interests could not legally be sealed by marriage in any of the United States until more than a quarter-century after his death. Certainly, the legal system is flawed—or at least it can tend to lag behind our spiritual, personal, or societal needs. Bart quickly realizes this perpetual systemic inadequacy, hence his (admittedly reluctant) descent into a life of crime with Laurie.
A radical orgasm.
During the film’s second act, we see a thrilling crescendo of crime—and the stakes keep getting higher. Sooner or later, we know, someone will get hurt. It is tempting to see this crescendo as indicative of the ways in which the nervous marksman and the sexy sharpshooter are hopelessly addicted to danger and excitement (“they rob banks and ride the roller coaster for much the same reasons,” as Shadoian says). They met at a carnival, after all! But there is more to this relationship than mere thrill-seeking. It is still a story about the machine.
Take, for example, an implied sex scene about a half-hour into the film: Laurie and Bart are arguing about money and morality. Laurie says she wants to “start kicking back,” and that she is determined to get what she deserves out of life. She tells Bart that he has paid his debt to society and that he is owed something in return. He disagrees—mostly because he hates to “look in the mirror and see nothing but a stick-up man”—but he does not want to argue. Laurie pushes the issue: “I want a guy with spirit and guts,” she insists. “I want things. A lot of things. Big things.” And she lies down on the bed, naked under her robe, asking Bart seductively if they can “finish the way [they] started… on the level.” The camera comes in very close, and we are intensely interested in Laurie’s posture, face, and tone of voice. Bart enters the frame and embraces her, and the focus fades, transitioning to the next shot, which is of a gumball machine being suddenly blown to pieces by a gunshot (soon we see that Bart and Laurie are fully clothed, and some time has passed; they are robbing a series of convenience stores and gas stations). Because of the associations created by the editing—from a sensual bedtime scene to an explosion—Shadoian calls this moment a “metaphor for orgasm,” and he is not necessarily wrong. But this metaphorically orgasmic destruction is also the literal destruction of a machine—specifically, it is the destruction of a machine that has been designed to exchange money (quarters) for material goods (gumballs). The explosion, therefore, signifies a purposeful, radical disruption of transactional expectations. The explosion is a rejection of the American economic system, which is often laborious and exploitative (not to mention boring, which seems to be Laurie’s main complaint). The explosion is a manifestation of rage against the machine. Laurie and Bart are taking money not only because they want to be able to afford onions on their hamburgers (they could get normal jobs, if they really felt like it); they are taking money because they want to assert their right to do so. It’s not about the gumballs. It’s about the act of taking them. Here we see the principled defiance of young Bart again—“it’s my gun [and] I’m not gonna give it to anybody!”—but it is really Laurie who encourages Bart to get in touch with this part of himself. Like any good orgasm, this moment is coaxed out of him by someone else’s persuasive interventions.
A deeply tragic conclusion.
This brings us to the end of the film (“one more step and I’ll kill you!”). The irony of Gun Crazy is that our two protagonists both get exactly what they had most feared—Bart had been afraid of letting anyone get hurt, and Laurie had ostensibly been afraid of getting hurt herself. And in their final moments, they both bring about their own worst possible scenario. Laurie’s animal aggressiveness—prompted by her strong sense of self-preservation—ends up getting her shot; and Bart’s highly trained trigger finger—prompted by his instinct to prevent violence at all costs—ends up shooting her. It seems he didn’t really want her to die, but he had no other tool at his disposal with which to stop her, except for his gun—an instrument that, again, is literally designed to end life. So, the true tragedy of Gun Crazy is deeper than mere irony; it is broader than the poetic punishment of a man and a woman. The true tragedy is that, ultimately, the gun—the tool with which Bart and Laurie have been trying to rage against the machine all along—is not (and cannot ever be) liberating. Ontologically, guns and death are inseparable. Which is to say, this story only could have ended in horrifying, chaotic, unpredictable violence, because America (and Americans) are not equipped to take something like a proficiency with guns and turn it into any kind of productive, prosocial, or even meaningfully subversive energy. A gun is a machine. A getaway car is a machine. A fuel pump is a machine. A gumball dispenser is a machine. Capitalist materialist consumerism is a machine. Toxic masculinity is a machine. Modern industrialized militarism is a machine. America is a machine. And the machine cannot defy, emancipate, or destroy itself. Indeed, nothing can be produced by the machine except that for which the machine is designed—in this case, horror, chaos, and violence.
Therefore, Gun Crazy is, at its core, a film about death—and it is a film about the kind of inevitability surrounding death that we must be prepared to accept if we as a society continue to embrace (or if we continue to play with, shrug off, make excuses for, sexualize, and romanticize) the coldly efficient, perpetually dehumanizing violence inherently tied to American masculinity, to American gun culture, and to the American Dream.
 Jameson, Richard T. “Gun Crazy.” The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love. Da Capo Press, 2008.
 Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “Gun Crazy went where Hollywood wouldn’t dare.” The AV Club. 5 February 2016.
 Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. Delta Books, 1981.
 This motif continues throughout the film, as Bart and Laurie are constantly boxed in by various rigid geometric frames, including windows and car windshields. Take, for example, the famous scene in which Bart and Laurie rob a bank and the camera stays inside the getaway car, capturing the entire episode in an impressive long take and trapping us—the audience—in the machine.
 This combination of romantic swagger and surprising traditionalism is mirrored later in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as Clyde Barrow assures Bonnie Parker that he wants “to make an honest woman out of [her].”
 And Laurie—his opposite, in many ways—subverts the genre, too. Unlike other femme fatale type characters, she knows what she wants, and she expresses herself with candor. She is uninterested in riddles, and she often seizes opportunities to take charge. She is cunning, passionate, brash, sensual, violent, and sometimes animalistic.
 I don’t mean to be flippant in my use of that admittedly loaded term here; I recognize that “the gaze” as explained by Laura Mulvey and others is a complicated subject. My purpose in invoking the term here is simply to recognize the way in which Peggy Cummins reverses the gaze through her performance as Laurie—much like Rita Hayworth reversing the gaze as Gilda Mundson Farrell in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946). She looks almost directly at the camera, and looks pointedly at her subject (Bart), disrupting the power dynamics that typically exist between female characters, male onlookers, and presumed straight male audience members (her deliciously dangerous “shooting the spectator” moment is this film’s version of Gilda’s one-glove striptease). This is not to say that Laurie is never eroticized or objectified by the camera at all in Gun Crazy; however, there’s definitely a sense in which Cummins’ powerful, agentic presence transcends and re-appropriates any eroticization or objectification placed upon her character.
 Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film, p. 133.
 Burroughs Hannsberry, Karen. Bad Boys: the Actors of Film Noir. McFarland, p. 176.
 Mann, William J. Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood. Viking, p. 263.
 Belluck, Oam. “With Festive Mood, Gay Weddings Begin in Massachusetts.” The New York Times. 17 May 2004.
 To be clear: I am not suggesting that Bart’s general desire to be good at something—or even his particular affinity for shooting guns—is inherently immoral. I am also not suggesting that Dall’s homosexuality is immoral in any way, of course. I am only suggesting that the American legal system is ill-equipped to traffic in questions of morality whatsoever, and that its attempts to do so are clumsy at best (e.g. when it condemns murder while reverently protecting the sale and collection of murder weapons), and discriminatory at worst (e.g. when it draws arbitrary lines between what kind of consensual sexual relationships can or cannot be worthy of marriage).
 Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film, p. 140.
 Ibid, p. 139.