Peggy Cummins, Seductive Star of a Cult Film, Dies at 92
Posted January 5, 2018 7:00 p.m. EST
Peggy Cummins, an actress best remembered for her turn as a femme fatale with a hair trigger in the influential low-budget film noir “Gun Crazy,” died Dec. 29. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed in a Facebook post by Dee Kirkman, a friend. Kirkman did not provide further details.
Slender, blond and young, Cummins, who grew up in Ireland and moved to the United States in 1945, had more often played innocents before being cast in “Gun Crazy.”
In “Gun Crazy” (also known as “Deadly Is the Female”), released in 1950, she played Annie Laurie Starr, a seductive carnival sharpshooter who marries a gun-obsessed Army veteran, played by John Dall, and goads him into an increasingly violent crime spree.
The script, based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor, was written by Kantor and the celebrated screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. But because Trumbo was blacklisted at the time, it was credited to another writer, Millard Kaufman. The film was shot in 30 days, cost $400,000 and was released to little fanfare.
“This spurious concoction is basically on a par with the most humdrum pulp fiction,” Howard Thompson, reviewing the film for The New York Times, wrote in 1950. He said the fresh-faced leads worked hard but were miscast.
“Just why two such clean-cut youngsters as Miss Cummins and Mr. Dall should be so cast is something for the Sphinx, but they certainly give it the works,” he continued. “Looking as fragile as a Dresden doll, Miss Cummins bites into her assignment like a shark.”
“Gun Crazy” was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who made dozens of gritty B-movies that were little noticed when they were first released but developed a cult following over time, especially among filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
“Gun Crazy,” with its sometimes documentary-style camerawork, came to be regarded as Lewis’ masterpiece. Cinephiles lauded a 3 1/2-minute uninterrupted shot from the back seat of a car during a bank robbery, during which Cummins and Dall improvised much of their dialogue.
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).
Writing in The New York Times in 1991 before a screening of Lewis’ films at the Public Theater in Manhattan, screenwriter and critic Jay Cocks and director Martin Scorsese called “Gun Crazy” “a great movie that never set out to be one,” noting that it “caught the delirium of crime and matched it up with a special kind of sexual heat.”
“Dall’s character is a smiling sociopath with an abiding love for guns but no real violence in his heart,” they continued. “Cummins plays one of those pure noir incarnations of the id, evil in a tight skirt.”
Cummins’ career had less staying power than her most famous role. She returned to England in 1950 and appeared in several British films, notably Jacques Tourneur’s horror movie “Curse of the Demon” (1957), but the parts became infrequent and she stopped acting in the mid-1960s.
Cummins was born on Dec. 18, 1925. She told The Boston Globe in 1946 that she began acting in Dublin when she was 7.
She acted on radio and in films before her performance as a sassy teenager in a long-running London production of “Junior Miss” caught the eye of a 20th Century Fox executive. The studio signed her to a contract in 1945.
She was cast as the title character in the period romantic drama “Forever Amber,” but after filming for several months the studio decided that she was wrong for the part and replaced her with Linda Darnell. Her actual Hollywood debut was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of the John P. Marquand novel “The Late George Apley” in 1947.
She married Derek Dunnett in 1950, and they had a son and a daughter. Survivor information was not immediately available.
Cummins’ other films include the thriller “Moss Rose” (1947) and the Western “Green Grass of Wyoming” (1948). Her last film was the 1962 British comedy “In the Doghouse.”
But she was forever identified with “Gun Crazy.”
During an interview after a screening of the film in San Francisco in 2013, Cummins told film writer Eddie Muller that she still received “a lot of letters from all over the world, and they all speak about ‘Gun Crazy.'”
“Of course it’s wonderful,” she added, “but it still makes me feel very sad at times, because it’s a sad movie, isn’t it?”