Peggy Cummins, the petite blond actress who played the carnival sharpshooter turned murderous bank robber in the sexually charged 1950 film noir classic Gun Crazy, has died. She was 92.
Cummins suffered a stroke and died Friday in a London hospital surrounded by her family, her longtime friend Dee Kirkwood, a fellow trustee of Stars Foundation for Cerebral Palsy, told The Hollywood Reporter.
The Irish actress also starred in the western Green Grass of Wyoming (1948) with Charles Coburn and in Jacques Tourneur’s British horror classic Curse of the Demon (1957) opposite Dana Andrews.
Cummins came to America in 1945 when, as a virtual unknown, she was cast for the lead in the highly anticipated 20th Century Fox period drama Forever Amber. She was eventually replaced by Linda Darnell in what could have been a tremendous career setback.
In something of a twist, it was Cummins who late in the game stepped in for Veronica Lake to play “Annie” Laurie Starr in the low-budget noir Gun Crazy. She practiced on a shooting range to brush up for her career-defining role as a traveling performer who picks Barton Tare (John Dall) out of a crowd and engages him in a shooting competition.
Before long, the manipulative Laurie marries Barton — an ex-Army marksman who has been obsessed with guns since he was a child — and they go on a crime spree.
“Peggy’s performance, her Hollywood swan song, would galvanize the Gun Crazy production and earn her lasting fame as the tiniest, but most ferocious, femme fatale in the history of film noir,” author Eddie Muller said in July as he introduced the film on Turner Classic Movies. (He wrote Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema, published in 2014.)
In its original review, The Hollywood Reporter raved about Cummins and her “commanding performance of the twisted girl.”
Gun Crazy was directed by B-movie kingpin Joseph H. Lewis off a crackling script rewritten by the recently blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who used Millard Kaufman as a front. MacKinlay Kantor made the first attempt at the screenplay, adapting it from a story he did for The Saturday Evening Post. Russell Harlan (To Kill a Mockingbird) provided the brilliant cinematography.
A clear precursor to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (Cummins even sported a beret long before Faye Dunaway did), Gun Crazy is also known for its three-minute-plus tracking shot from the backseat of the car that Laurie and Barton use to rob a small-town bank and make their getaway.
“We made up the dialogue as we went along [during that scene]. Joe Lewis let us do that,” Cummins revealed during a 2013 Film Noir Foundation appearance in San Francisco.
Muller noted that Gun Crazy, released through United Artists under its original title Deadly Is the Female, was the only film from prolific producers Frank and Maurice King to lose money. “Today, it’s seen as their crowning achievement,” he said. Experts say it also inspired a host of French New Wave filmmakers.
Cummins was born on Dec. 18, 1925, the youngest of three. Her mother, Margaret Tracy, was an actress; her father was a journalist and music teacher. She appeared on stage and in radio plays as a teenager and worked in such films as Dr. O’Dowd (1940) and Welcome, Mr. Washington (1944).
After appearing for many months on a London stage in Junior Miss, she was spotted by a Fox talent scout. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck then cast her as the immoral Amber St. Clair in an adaptation of Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s romance novel that’s set in 17th century England. Execs had looked at more than 200 actresses for the part.
“Fox made a big splash for me when I came over. I weighed 98 pounds and had an 18-inch waist,” Cummins said at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. “I went to Zanuck’s party [at his home]. All these people were there, [Ernst] Lubitsch, Tyrone Power, Joan Crawford. I said hello as though I knew them. It was awesome. They were stars; I was an actress.”
“The tendency, if you were a bit short, blonde and rather pretty, was for a conventional role, but this was quite a meaty part. An actor wants to play against type.”
However, after filming began in 1946 on the Monterey Peninsula in California, Zanuck found that his discovery was “not sexy enough,” in Cummins’ words, and production was suspended after a few weeks. Cummins got the boot, with the full-figured Darnell taking her place, and Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber bowed in November 1947.
“I can’t deny it was like having a lovely jewel or some other wonderful gift and then having to give it back,” Cummins told Photoplay of the experience. “It’s hard, but you have a choice. You can let yourself ache over your loss — or you can think instead of how wonderful and exciting it was while you had it.”
Cummins went on to make her Fox debut in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz comedy The Late George Apley (1947), starring as the daughter of Ronald Colman’s wealthy Bostonian, and then had lead roles in Moss Rose (1947), playing a Cockney singer-dancer opposite Victor Mature; Green Grass of Wyoming; and Escape (1948) with Rex Harrison before the end of her Fox contract.
She left the U.S. in 1950 — she would not return for decades — and starred in such films as Operation X (1950) with Edward G. Robinson; Hell Drivers (1957), directed by the blacklisted Cy Endfield; and Curse of the Demon, in which she and Andrews’ psychologist character investigate a mysterious death.
Cummins retired from acting in the mid-1960s.
She married the late London businessman Derek Dunnett in 1950. Survivors include her son David and daughter Diana.