It's a Bonnie and Clyde movie. There have been a few of them over the years, with the best-known obviously being Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but there's also You Only Live Once
(1937), The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) and Bonnie & Clyde: The True Story (1992). This particular film is only a loose representation of the historical facts and it's not even trying to give us the real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (died together in 1934), but it's still tapping into that vibe.
The problem with this of course is that Bonnie and Clyde aren't particularly interesting. Look, they're robbing a bank! Look, they're doing it again! Yes, and...? However this film gets around that problem to some extent by making Peggy Cummins a femme fatale while John Dall is a sweet, good-natured man who unfortunately happens to be crazy about (a) Cummins and (b) guns. He's got a kind of James Stewart "aw shucks" charm about him, especially when he's happy, which is interesting since he'd acted opposite Stewart a couple of years earlier in Hitchcock's Rope
. This isn't the story of a bad man. On the contrary, it's the story of a good man who's about to get pulled off the rails in a big way, but still has a moral code and doesn't really want to be doing any of these things. This isn't really a plot movie. It's a character development movie, albeit one that's being played out against a backdrop of guns, robberies and so on. You don't really care about their situation since there doesn't seem any real chance that they won't crash and burn, but there's a lot bound up in John Dall's struggle for his soul. Will he become a monster, or will he manage to stop himself falling all the way?
In other words, it's a simplistic story that was more likely than not to get boring. What saves the film is the fact that it's full of energy and style while always having great clarity about what it's trying to do. The director's instructions to his actors weren't exactly ambiguous, for instance. Here's a quote from an interview. "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions." Then you've got sequences like the famous one-take bank heist which they did practically for real and includes a real passer-by screaming that there's been a bank robbery, not realising this was for a film.
It also looks exactly as you'd imagine of film noir. Let that phrase sink into your mind and conjure images. Shadows and darkness so rich that you could stand a spoon in them? Yup, that's this film.
John Dall takes quite a while to become Clyde. He's a nice guy, despite (no, because of) a disturbing bit at the beginning in which his seven-year-old self kills a fluffy chick. The film makes a lot of his love of guns, then drops it later once he's wrapped up in Cummins because Hollywood couldn't get too kinky in 1950. "I feel good when I'm shooting them. I feel good inside, like I'm somebody." The film would have died like a dog if we hadn't cared about him, but we do, from beginning to end.
Meanwhile Peggy Cummins is a bit of a Lady Macbeth, but she's not evil. She's a bad girl and the worst possible influence on Dall, but she has a kind of honesty and you could say that she's dangerous not because she's strong, but because she's weak. Cummins is every bit as good as Dall in this film and together they're quite a team. Incidentally she was also in Night of the Demon
This is a B-movie, but it's an outstanding one. It was originally going to be distributed by Monogram, but the producers got it a more high-profile release by getting it handled by United Artists. Incidentally the screenplay credit is a lie, with "Millard Kaufman" being a front for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Later that decade, he won two Best Screenplay Oscars under pseudonyms. It's a simple but strongly told story with lots of style and a great pair of central performances. By the way its title when released in Britain was Deadly Is the Female, which fits. It's not a story you'd want to cuddle up to and it's still basically a Bonnie and Clyde movie, but in pretty much every department I think it's being done about as well as it could have been.