Gun Crazy - Poverty Row
The fantastic 1950 B movie Gun Crazy is re-released this fortnight. It's time to worship at the altar of director Joseph H Lewis again, says Paul Dale
Since I heard that his 'lovers on the lam' film noir Gun Crazy was to be revived I have spent a lot of time trying to get hold of Joseph H Lewis' other films. If ever there was a wonderful filmmaker who deserves his own DVD box set, it is Lewis. My old VHS player hasn't had so much action in years, and I have still only managed to locate about a third of his filmograph. But even on that evidence, I am beginning to believe that Lewis may just be the greatest filmmaker that America ever produced. Reared in depressions, Lewis was the original recession auteur, the Michael Winterbottom of his day.
Born in 1907 in Manhattan, Lewis, a wannabe actor with an Adolfe Menjou moustache followed his editor brother Ben to Hollywood. Discouraged by the queues of actors looking for work as extras, Lewis managed to get himself a gofer job at MGM, then the richest studio in town.
Through some creative negotiating (he lied and said he was his brother) Lewis became supervising editor at the studio's Poverty Row operation. It was here, making quickie adventure serials with Rin Tin Tin, Rex the Wonder Horse and Clyde Beatty the lion tamer that Lewis learned his craft and probably realised that shoestring budgets and medieval working conditions aside, B movie freedom was far preferable to A movie refinement (and the expectations it brings).
Moving between MGM, Columbia, Universal and United Artists throughout his career, Lewis was singular in that he lacked the A list aspirations of his B Movie contemporaries Anthony Mann and Jacques Torneur or the workmanlike detachment of long forgotten fellow contractors like Henry Levin, Alfred E Green and comedy specialist Alexander Hall. Lewis was the scaliest fish in the pond.
Lewis first emerged as a director to watch with his no budget horror quickie Invisible Ghost starring Bela Lugosi, a film so breathlessly nutty and inventive I beg you to watch it for yourself (http://tinyurl.com/czcjop). From here until his retirement into television in the 1960s, every film Lewis made is a miracle of economy and playfulness. 1942's Silver Bullet repositions the western revenge flick way before Peckinpah, Seigel, Eastwood et al started their tinkering. Bombs Over Burma (1943) purports war as childish fun way before Boorman had Hope and Glory. The Undercover Man, Retreat: Hell and My Name is Julia Ross prove that Lewis could match and show anything achieved in Mann's T-Men, Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets! and Hitchcock's Rebecca respectively.
And then there's the two films upon which Lewis' reputation rests, the remarkable Bonnie and Clyde progenitor Gun Crazy (pictured) and 1955's The Big Combo – a duel between cop and gangster that makes Michael Mann's Heat look like amateur hour. The revival of this film in the late 1970s kick-started a rediscovery of Lewis' work that culminated in a 24-film retrospective at the 1980 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Oh, if I could turn back time.
Gun Crazy, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 3–Thu 9 Apr.