Martin Scorsese said the 1950s movie “caught the delirium of crime and matched it up with a special kind of sexual heat". Ahead of its time.
This week, Hollywood royalty descended upon Beverly Hills for the 75th annual Golden Globes. Every year, this is a ritual as silly as it is self-absorbed, but this year’s proceedings were tinged with a certain amount of seriousness. The sexual harassment scandals that have rocked Hollywood were front and center, and broader issues of race and gender -- who has power and who doesn’t -- were hard to avoid.
All of these issues must eventually be addressed, though it’s hard to imagine a group more likely to turn this into an exercise in narcissism than Hollywood folks.
It’s also an interesting time to look back on the issues the sex scandals have taken off of the front burner.
Remember when folks simply thought Hollywood was corrupting the minds of our youth and -- possibly, just possibly -- contributing to the absurd levels of gun violence which ravage America?
This is as good a time as any to remember one very unique, very important Irish actress, whose life intersected with these important issues.
Her name was Peggy Cummins and she died late last month, having just celebrated her 92nd birthday on December 18th. Cummins’ parents were Dubliners who were stranded in Wales by bad weather in 1925, when young Peggy came along.
She took to acting at age seven in Dublin, and later England, before signing a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1945 and moving to Hollywood. Cummins lived her final years in England, and had not acted consistently for over five decades.
But she did appear in more than two dozen flicks throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with one of her films standing the test of time, influencing multiple generations of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, and -- perhaps most importantly -- reminding us that carnival barkers who want to make America great again know very little about America’s past.
Cummins’ most famous film is Gun Crazy, made in 1950. Those were the years when everything seemed right with America. The war was over. The houses in the suburbs were big. The picket fences ringing the houses were white.
But Gun Crazy reminds us that there was a lot of rage bubbling under that pretty surface. In the film Cummins and co-star John Dall play a married couple who go on an ultra-violent crime spree.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, the movie might have been a whole lot more controversial had it not been dismissed at the time as just another crime caper, though admittedly a slightly darker one.
It took a few years, and a new generation of filmmakers, before movie lovers started to realize just how radical Gun Crazy -- and Cummins’ performance in it -- was.
Just a few years later, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo presented a portrait of love, obsession and psychological turmoil that turned much of Gun Crazy’s violence inward. Then, in 1960, came Psycho. Within a few years, screens were awash in blood thanks to another movie about gun-toting lovers, Bonnie and Clyde.
Gun Crazy’s radical violence and imagery had gone mainstream. In the movies and in the streets.
“The film’s sometimes gleeful portrayal of sexualized crime and violence was echoed in later movies like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994),” The New York Times noted, in Cummins recent obituary.
Another master of cinematic violence, Martin Scorsese, once wrote that Gun Crazy “caught the delirium of crime and matched it up with a special kind of sexual heat,” adding that the film’s Irish star “plays one of those pure noir incarnations of the id, evil in a tight skirt.”
There’s just one problem: we haven’t figured out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, if it’s the movies that are gun crazy, or us.