“Bart, I’ve never been much good. At least up ’til now I haven’t. You aren’t getting any bargain, but I’ve got a funny feeling that I want to be good. I don’t know. Maybe I can’t. But I’m gonna try. I’ll try hard, Bart. I’ll try.”
With those words, Annie Laurie Starr, the trigger-happy femme fatale of the iconic film noir Gun Crazy (1949), prepared to say “I do” to her lover and soon-to-be partner in crime Bart Tare.
Gun Crazy, my favorite film noir, has been an enormously influential film. As Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, said at the opening night presentation of Gun Crazy at Noir City 11 in San Francisco last week, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, and David Newman’s honored A-film Bonnie and Clyde might never have been without Gun Crazy to lead the way. The opening night event was dedicated to Noir City’s special guest, Peggy Cummins, the British-Irish actress who made Annie Laurie Starr one of the most beloved femme fatale characters in all of cinema. Miss Cummins, 87, made the trip from London to attend the event and was overwhelmed by the prolonged standing ovation she received before and after the screening.
Cummins, however, first came to Hollywood to play the title role in a very high-profile screen adaptation of Kathleen Winsor’s notorious costume romance Forever Amber. When the production was unceremoniously shut down, Cummins’ career took on more of a minor key. She costarred with such Hollywood icons as Ronald Colman in The Late George Apley and Edward G. Robinson in Operation X, but she worked mainly in British films, including the spectacular British noir Hell Drivers (1957), directed by blacklisted American filmmaker Cy Endfield. She made her last film in 1962—a British comedy called In the Doghouse—before retiring to raise a family.
I don’t think she was such a bad girl. It is very difficult to understand her. Maybe she had been badly treated in the beginning. She got carried away with it all, I feel. She wasn’t originally like she ended up. I think she was very keen on the chap, John Dall. She dominated him, but he was the strong one in the beginning. And when he wouldn’t get a bigger house . . . A lot of people want things, they really do, especially when you’re young.
In a phone interview from her home in London, Miss Cummins said that she “never had as good a role for me to act in than Gun Crazy.” Our conversation proceeded as follows:
Keyframe: Of course, Annie Laurie Starr is your most iconic role. How do you feel about her and being identified with her so strongly?
Peggy Cummins: Well, that’s a good question. When you meet me, I don’t think you’ll find me like her. I hope it was because of the writing that I was able to portray whatever she was. Possibly physically it was a great help, the sort of shape I was. The looks were essential to the role.
Keyframe: She was such a bad girl!
Cummins: I don’t think she was such a bad girl. It is very difficult to understand her. Maybe she had been badly treated in the beginning. She got carried away with it all, I feel. She wasn’t originally like she ended up. I think she was very keen on the chap, John Dall. She dominated him, but he was the strong one in the beginning. And when he wouldn’t get a bigger house . . . A lot of people want things, they really do, especially when you’re young.
Keyframe: Yes, she says, ‘I want things. A lot of things.’
Cummins: Funnily enough, thinking of myself, I don’t think I want that many things. Like now, a diamond necklace wouldn’t mean anything to me, because I’m an old lady with a neck that can’t show it off. But I never wanted one, I don’t think. I’m more a country girl. I enjoyed it when we had a little farm, when I was married—that was in the ’60s—when the children were young.
Keyframe: The first bank robbery in Gun Crazy is a wonderfully spontaneous and tense scene. It was all in one take, I believe.
Cummins: Yes. Joe Lewis told us what we were supposed to do, and we improvised the dialogue. The sound was from microphones in the back of the car.
Keyframe: Why do you think Annie Laurie Starr is such a classic and memorable character?
Cummins: It is very difficult to explain, but the script (by Dalton Trumbo through front Millard Kaufman), the cameramen, the other actors, these all made her what she was.
Keyframe: What are your recollections of your time in Hollywood?
Cummins: When I look back, to me Bette Davis was my idol. A great role model. But I never got the parts because I suppose one looks not the part.
The studios, the whole way of life, it seemed extraordinary, particularly the time I arrived in Hollywood. It was Hollywood.
Keyframe: I am a big fan of Ronald Colman, can you tell me what he was like to work with on George Apley?
Cummins: He was absolutely marvelous, and he loved the camera and he was always able to play all his scenes into the camera, which is not easy to do at first. This was the first one I made for 20th Century Fox. All the stage actors in that film, they were all jewels. And as for Ronald Colman, Clark Gable was called the king of Hollywood, but I think Ronald Colman was also a king of Hollywood.
Keyframe: What do you think is the enduring appeal of film noir?
Cummins: I really don’t know. Well, it’s comparatively a new calling of it, isn’t it. I wasn’t aware of it being ‘noir’ at the time. You could say that Lana Turner was a very good noir actress. I thought John Garfield was marvelous. I thought he was a brilliant actor. On the screen he gave so much without doing anything.
Keyframe: Would you like to come out of retirement?
Cummins: I could play an old-time Annie Laurie Starr! I’m not really active as an actress, and the parts are not really good for people my age.
My son is nearly 57, and I look at him and I think ‘Oh, my goodness!’ And I’ve got four grandchildren. I don’t think they’re interested in my career, because they see me as grandma.
Marilyn Ferdinand is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Keyframe. She is the founder and coproprietor of the film criticism blog Ferdy on Films (www.ferdyonfilms), as well as the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon.