She looked, wrote one critic more than a half century ago, “as fragile as a Dresden doll.” But she delivered what perhaps is the single most vicious female performance in any film noir title that ever came out of Hollywood. And that’s saying something.
Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray, Jane Greer and Gloria Grahame are considered the queens of the genre. But although this one is perhaps the most lethal (she was prepared to kill anyone who crossed her path), she never achieved the celebrity attained by her murderous noir sisters.
We’re talking about Peggy Cummins and her vivid interpretation of the pistol-wielding murderess in Joseph H. Lewis’ crisp 1950 thriller, Gun Crazy. She falls into that category of ” I didn’t even know she was still alive.” She no longer is. Cummins died Dec. 29 of unspecified causes. She was 92.
We bet our readers couldn’t name more than one film in which she appeared. But that one film is a genuine classic — Gun Crazy, shot in 30 days at a cost of about $400,000 by a strictly B-list director proving that when the Hollywood stars are properly aligned, superb movies can result from the most unlikely circumstance.
Gun Crazy has been called, by director Martin Scorsese no less, “a great movie that never set out to be one… Cummins plays one of those pure noir incarnations of the id, evil in a tight skirt.” When the movie was first released, the critic for The New York Times dismissed it as a “spurious concoction…on a par with the most hum-drum pulp fiction.” So much for mainstream media movie reviewing.
The movie centers around a gun-obsessed couple (John Dall, tomorrow’s blog subject, is the male lead) who become lovers after she is bounced as a sharpshooting performer in a low-rent carnival show. To make ends meet the pair stage ever more daring and violent robberies. It becomes clear early on that she rather than he is the driving force pushing the two to ever more sexually daring and violent adventures. The movie does not end happily.
Cummins was born in the U.K., and began acting at age 7. After a Twentieth Century Fox scout caught her in a London stage performance, she was signed to a studio contract in 1945. She made her screen debut two years later in The Late George Appley directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. As a woman of dubious virtue, she shared top billing the year before with Rex Harrison in Fox’s Escape.
She also appeared in a thriller, 1947’s Moss Rose, and a western, Green Grass of Wyoming, a year later. Director Jacques Tourneur cast her in 1957’s Curse of the Demon. But by the mid-1960’s she was out of the business.
By then, of course, she had made Gun Crazy. It provided her with her signature part, and she certainly made the most of it. Farewell, Peggy Cummins.