Tuesday, January 29, 2013

NOIR CITY 11: GUN CRAZY (1950)—Eddie Muller Introduction and On-Stage Conversation With Peggy Cummins

I have literally grown up in San Francisco's Castro Theatre where—at the tender age of 20—I caught my first film on its giant screen (if I remember correctly, Bette Davis in Now Voyager). That would have been back in 1975 and now nearly four decades later, my mind swims with the myriad premiere events, celebrity tributes and film festivals that have taken place in that majestic movie palace—one of the few remaining venues of its stature left in the United States—where the Mighty Wurlitzer ritually belts out "San Francisco" to enthusiastic audiences clapping time in unison. Nearly every major community-based and genre film festival has held its opening night ceremonies at the Castro, if not their entire runs, and whereas some have come and gone, others like San Francisco's annual Noir City film festival continue to prosper and grow, the opening night of its 11th edition breaking all attendance records to date.

Naturally, as with any expanding midriff, things need to be let out and restitched here and again to accommodate growth. The increased popularity of Noir City's opening night has necessitated new strategies of ticket tiering, crowd control and media access, adjustments that inspire both grumbles and grins. The opening night reception customarily held in the Castro's mezzanine is fast becoming an unwieldy mass of elbow shoving and spilled wine; but, one thing holds constant throughout the proceedings and that is the surety with which the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) delivers a program of noir favorites assembled from the best prints available or recently restruck under the aegis of film education, restoration and preservation. In other words, as this year's theme attests, Noir City is "keeping it reel." That's bang for your buck, folks.

To launch its second decade, Noir City elected to pay tribute to Peggy Cummins, "the deadliest female in all of film noir", by way of opening their 10-day festival with Cummins' iconic performance as Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy (1950), directed by Joseph H. Lewis from an (uncredited) screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, and co-starring John Dall (as Annie's partner-in-crime Bart Tare).

With the theater packed with an audience buzzing with anticipation, the now legendary disembodied "voice of Noir City", William P. Arney, situated the audience's attention towards the stage and screen with his wry drawl: "Alright ladies and gentlemen, you might as well settle in because no one is going anywhere for a while. I see a lot of newbies in the audience tonight, and plenty of repeat offenders, but all of you have drawn the same sentence. So start rationing your popcorn, planning your bathroom breaks, and budgeting for those parking tickets, because you have been found guilty of extreme movie fanaticism and you're about to serve your time." Introducing Eddie Muller as "writer, noirchaeologist, San Francisco literary laureate, boss of the Film Noir Foundation, and Lindsay Lohan's personal media consultant", the crowd erupted into affectionate applause for everyone's beloved Czar of Noir.

Once the applause subsided, Muller let out a huge sigh. "It seems like about 10 seconds ago I was on this stage concluding our fantastic 10th anniversary celebration of Noir City … and then I must have blinked, because an entire year has gone by. But I know that something happened in the middle there because things are very different now than they were at the end of the last festival and a lot of those things have to do with this city and an incredible sense of civic pride, this coming from a native San Franciscan. The last time I stood on this stage and we closed the Noir City Film Festival, there was a different world champion in baseball, and when this festival concludes next Sunday, we will be the city of champions!" Muller noted that another "surge of pride" this week stemmed from the opening of the San Francisco Jazz Center, which in his estimation provides San Francisco an official claim to being the jazz capitol of America. "And, as if there was any doubt at all, the 11th edition of this festival proves that San Francisco—and specifically the Castro Theatre—is the film noir mecca of the world. Yes, that's right, I said mecca. I'm afraid the FBI is going to start tapping my phone line."

"Last year when we celebrated our 10-year anniversary," Muller continued, "I was actually secretly a little bit disappointed because the Film Noir Foundation did not have any restorations to present to you, so we made up for it this year because—during the next 10 days—we will be presenting the world premieres of four 35mm restorations, three of which are funded fully or partially by the Film Noir Foundation, which means that you guys actually paid for it.

"Since all of this began, it has occurred to all of us at the Film Noir Foundation that we are not only in the business of preserving films, we are actually in the business of preserving the filmgoing experience. So it's incredibly great to see all of you packing this house tonight and there are people in here who are here because they remember what it was like back in the day to come out and see movies like this with other people, to socialize, to actually get out of the house and meet other people and see other human beings and we're actually doing this for a new generation because we want them to know that movies [and here Muller turned towards the Castro screen and spread out his arms wide] are this big!"

Speaking of the next generation of noir aficionados, Muller shouted out to Serena Bramble whose new clip reel "When Death Comes" preceded his introduction. Technical glitches marred that premiere a bit; but, those kinks will assuredly be worked out by the film's next presentation on Bad Girls night. Bramble has a keen sense of editorial rhythm and assembles her images judiciously.

Muller then introduced Audra Wolfmann, this year's Miss Noir City and "mistress of festivities", who accompanied him on stage to further announcements. Noting that—though sweaty and sexy on the festival poster (which emulates J. Howard Miller's infamous 1943 "We Can Do It" propaganda poster)—she had dried out and cleaned up nicely, Audra countered by congratulating Muller on managing to free himself from being hogtied on the projection room floor. "Audra really enjoyed this photo shoot," Muller commented, "because she did actually get to tie me up and trample on me for a couple of hours." "It was a dream come true; I'm not going to deny it," Wolfmann admitted, "but you were such a director. You were like, 'Tie it tighter. You tightened the knot wrong.' "Something else San Francisco's been getting a reputation for," Muller quipped.

As for the opening night film Gun Crazy, Muller advised, "If somebody tells you that the movie you are about to see is the most exciting, dynamic and cinematically influential film noir movie ever made, just agree with them. It's not worth arguing, okay? Without this film Jean-Luc Godard would never have been inspired to make Breathless, David Newman and Arthur Penn would have had nothing to shoot for when they made Bonnie and Clyde, nobody would refer to Joseph H. Lewis as the most creative B-movie director ever, and all of those guys owe an incredible debt to the woman we have here tonight, whose performance in this movie is plainly and simply the most ferocious female ever to appear on a motion picture screen. We do it right here at Noir City so I am absolutely thrilled to welcome to San Francisco—I made her leave the sixguns at the hotel—please give a San Francisco welcome to Annie Laurie Starr, the fabulous all-the-way-from-London Peggy Cummins."

A San Francisco welcome is always a thunderous event and Cummins was visibly moved as she stood to receive her standing room ovation; an ovation that was repeated as she found her way to the stage to converse with Muller after the screening of Gun Crazy.

On stage, Cummins found it difficult to speak at first, "tremendously moved." She admitted that she felt a little bit like Cinderella, in that a few days down the line she would be back home, washing up over the sink, peeling potatoes, and doing all the normal things one does. "My son will say, 'How'd you get on, Mum?' How can I tell them? What's the song? I left my heart in San Francisco? That's the song that I'll be singing."

Muller asked Cummins if she understood the audience reaction? If she understood why people love Gun Crazy and her character Annie Laurie Starr, though "love" is a weird way to put it? After all, she's had a few years to think about it. "Quite a few years, as you can see," she laughed, but then stated, "To try to give reality to it, it makes me very sad in many ways watching it now. I very seldom see it. I get a lot of letters from all over the world and they all speak about Gun Crazy and, of course, it's wonderful but it still makes me feel very sad at times because it's a sad movie—isn't it?—in a way. I don't want to know what you think about me in it, but anyway you seem to be kind enough to like me for it so I'm very grateful. That's all I can say. It was a great part for me. Can you imagine at this stage in one's life to be here after so many years and to get this reception? It's unbelievable. It is! You genuinely like and understand the movie, I believe. You probably know that I came to America in 1945 from England and I was going to play in Forever Amber, but they said—whoever they are—that I wasn't sexy enough." The audience hissed disapproval.

"That would have been Darryl F. Zanuck," Muller clarified.

"Well, it was the studio. Anyway, a very good actress played the part. Linda Darnell is, sadly, no longer with us; but, she actually—when I think of it—was probably much better than I could have been really. But then I got my luck with getting this part. When I say 'my luck', well, it was a part that I felt I could play. Don't ask me why. And it wasn't only me. Nothing is only you. It's the writer, the script, the director: I'm sure you've all heard these things before but they are true, aren't they?"

Agreeing that they absolutely were, Muller nonetheless qualified that there were members of the audience who didn't know the historical background of the film and, therefore, he wanted to pursue that line of inquiry. The producers of Gun Crazy were the King Brothers—Frank, Maurice and Herman King—who had a reputation for being low rent filmmakers; but, they belied that reputation because they made tremendous movies, of which Gun Crazy could be considered their crowning achievement. Characterizing them as "bottom feeders" (to which Cummins responded, "I beg your pardon?"), she then affirmed that they didn't give her that impression and that she got along with them very well, as she gets along with most people. "We get along," she smiled at Muller.

Noting that Forever Amber was a huge bestselling romance novel by Kathleen Winsor and that the search for the actress to play Amber was commensurate to the search for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind; 20th Century Fox did a worldwide search for the actress to play Amber in the film. Zanuck chose Cummins—who was then only 18—to play Amber. Muller asked if Cummins could first detail her acting background in the U.K.

Cummins outlined that she started off in Ireland at the Gate Theater in Dublin. They wanted a child to do a silhouette scene in The Duchess of Malfi. Although she initially wanted to be a ballet dancer, and took classes at a local school, she was singled out to play the child in the Gate production. "I looked like a boy," she said, "I was straight up and down with short hair and very small, so I got the part. On the first night I had to stand [sideways] which was a silhouette on stage; but, I thought—well, I didn't think, mind you, in this part—'I just don't understand. I want to look at the audience.' So I turned right around to look at the audience. When the scene was over, and we came off [stage], the director said to me, 'You should not have done that. You were meant to stand the other way.' And I said, 'But I wanted to look at the audience.' So.

"From that they needed other children in other Shakespearean plays … and I got a lot of parts. I was given a quarter—not a half—but a quarter pound of chocolates and that was my salary. My brother used to meet me to pick me up to take me home on the bus and he ate all the chocolates before I ever got home. …I got all these parts and I got very good reviews, you know? Then, I had this part to go to London. My mother wasn't an actress but I think she was very keen. I was unaware of being an actress or whatever you might have called it and, yes, one enjoyed it, I enjoyed the parts. There's a story I could tell you if we have enough time about a gentleman who is here who saw me in that play in London, which really was my great success on the London stage, and that brought me to the attention of Zanuck at 20th Century Fox."

The play was called Junior Miss and Louis—the young man who saw her in that production—was, at the time, a G.I. stationed in the U.K., 24 years of age to her 18. Now living in the East Bay, Louis had recently written Cummins reminding her that he had seen her in Junior Miss at the Savoy Theater in London "with the doodle bugs coming down." Cummins recalled having to act against the sound of those falling bombs as if nothing were happening. "That's acting," she boasted. When Muller and the Film Noir Foundation were arranging for Cummins' travel to the U.S., she mentioned this anecdote about the letter she received so the Foundation contacted Louis, inviting him to come meet her at Noir City. Of course, he had written her the letter with no knowledge that she would be in San Francisco, but welcomed the opportunity for Noir City to be the chance to reunite with her after some 60 years or so.

Not wanting to bring up bad memories, Muller nonetheless presumed it must have been devastating for Cummins to lose the role of Amber after having initially been cast. In typical Hollywood fashion, they had started filming the movie with Cummins in the role and then rather unceremoniously announced that the production was closing. "It was shattering," Cummins admitted, "to get a part like that and then find that the whole production had been shut and that was it." She went home to the U.K., made other films—including Curse of the Demon (1957) and Hell Drivers (1957), both included in Noir City's Cummins tribute—but of course the film that did more for her than any of them was Gun Crazy.

Muller wondered when Cummins first read the script for Gun Crazy—which had originally been entitled Deadly Is the Female—if she wanted to play the part because she had just been through this ordeal where she'd been told she was not sexy enough? Cummins responded that she never really took notice of that comment. But because she had blonde hair and pale skin, she was cast in a lot of nondescript roles. Not to say that the productions were nondescript. She was grateful for her role in Curse of the Demon but there really wasn't much to it and the true pleasure was in acting across Dana Andrews who she considered a lovely man and a wonderful actor. Despite unassuming roles, her career has afforded her the chance to work with many talented actors who made her look good. John Dall, she insisted, made her look good in Gun Crazy, though admittedly she made him look pretty good as well. "It's a reciprocal thing," she explained. "In acting it's terribly important that you both get on and both have the feeling of what the script is about, and not analyze it too much."

Cummins admitted that she was unaware at the time that the script was ghostwritten by Dalton Trumbo. The story for Gun Crazy was originally written by MacKinlay Kantor in the Saturday Evening Post and it was quite an elaborate story based very much on Kantor's upbringing. The original story was more Bart's story and a heavy thing about why someone would have this fetish for shooting guns. The King Brothers bought Kantor's story and screenplay, but then the smartest thing they did was to hire Dalton Trumbo—who had been the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood but was then blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee—because they could get him on the cheap. They had him rewrite the screenplay and bring it in in such a way that it was actually manageable. He cut a lot out of Kantor's screenplay and tightened it up. A lot of the kinetic energy seen in the film had to do with Dalton Trumbo's screenplay; but, of course, he did all of this under the radar because he had been blacklisted. Millard Kaufman, a fine writer in his own right, acted as Trumbo's front for the project. Trumbo did this because he was trying to write as many scripts as he could to earn as much money as he could before being sent to prison for contempt of Congress as one of the "Hollywood Ten." The Prowler was another film written by Trumbo for which he received no credit. Actors like Cummins were more often than not totally unaware of Trumbo's involvement. In retrospect, Cummins considered it amazing that she was lucky enough to act in one of his scripts but emphasized how disconcerting it was to realize what he went through.

As for director Joseph H. Lewis, Cummins recalled he had made quite a few very good films, but emphasized that credit couldn't lie just with the screenwriter, or the director, but must include the camera man, and the make-up technicians, etc.. "I'm taking credit now," she said, "which should be their credit. You know what I mean?" Muller conceded that, yes, a project like Gun Crazy was much like "catching lightning in a bottle" where all the right collaborators together made something so special.

Muller then wanted to know about the film's action sequences and stunts, all of which Cummins performed herself. Cummins recalled that when it came to shooting the film's final sequence in the marsh, Lewis complained to her that she was putting too much black dirt on her face but the truth was that she was going through all that water and she was falling down and getting dirty. It was difficult to shoot, as well as emotional for her because she felt Annie's desperation in being hunted and caught. Hopefully, she said, that emotion came through? Cummins confirmed that her multiple stumbles and falls in the film were not choreographed or rehearsed by Lewis, they were genuine, and "poor" John Dall had to keep dragging her and telling her, "Come on!" And, of course, she joked, she couldn't let go of her handbag. What self-respecting woman would let go of her handbag while running through a swamp?

Muller noted how there had been spontaneous applause after the bank robbery scene, which has since become acknowledged as one of the great scenes in Gun Crazy. Again, Cummins confirmed that the scene was not as rehearsed as one might expect. Lewis encouraged the actors to improvise their dialogue as they went along in these scenes because he knew the actors had done their work and knew what was expected of them. Case in point, in that scene when John Dall goes into the bank and Cummins is waiting in the car parked in a place where she shouldn't be parked, the cop arrives and (in character) Cummins thought, "Oh my Lord, look who's coming. How can I get out of this?" She got out of the car and made small talk. She was wearing her cowgirl outfit, so the policeman looked at her guns, she looked at his, he said hands off, Dall came out of the bank, they knocked him out and took off in the car; all of it was fairly spontaneous for such a long scene filmed in one take. To film her looking back at the crime scene and shooting the policeman, the back end of the car had been cut off and there was a platform with the camera and microphones in place to film her. Cummins remembered that "the chaps were a bit nervous about my driving."

As for her co-star John Dall, Cummins described him as a great stage actor, which meant a lot to her because she considered herself more a stage actress than a film actress. In fact, watching Serena Bramble's introductory clip reel that featured the faces of so many of Hollywood's most famous femme fatales, by comparison Cummins felt she was nobody: "They were great stars." Muller protested, "But so are you, Peggy. You have achieved immortality with this film." The audience applauded in agreement, to which Cummins murmured, "Don't make me cry. Please, don't. Emotionally, you can't realize what it's like to sit here at my stage in life. It's amazing. I can't help but think of all these people who have helped me and I truly have left my heart in San Francisco."

Photos courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation.

Of Related Interest: Marilyn Ferdinand interviews Cummins for Keyframe. G. Allen Johnson does the honors for the San Francisco Chronicle. Further write-ups for Noir City 11's opening night include Lara Fowler at Backlots; Michael Strickland at Civic Center; and Sean Martinfield for The Huffington Post. Festival overviews provided by Tavo Amador for the Bay Area Reporter and Tom Mayer for Cinesource (which includes an interview with Eddie Muller). Daily updates from Noir City can be found at the Film Noir Foundation's Facebook page.