NEW YORK, N.Y. – Peggy Cummins, a Welsh-born stage and film actress who worked just a few years in Hollywood but left behind an indelible performance as the lethal, beret-wearing robber in the noir classic “Gun Crazy,” has died at age 92.
Cummins, who retired from acting in the early 1960s, died Friday in London at age 92. Her friend Dee Kirkwood said she died of a stroke.
A child star in England, Cummins was not yet 20 when brought to the United States in 1945 by studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck to play the title role in an adaptation of one of the decade’s raciest novels, “Forever Amber.” The petite blonde was passed over in favour of Linda Darnell, allegedly because she was too young, but Cummins was most certainly of age for “Gun Crazy,” which came out in 1950.
Initially dismissed by The New York Times as “pretty cheap stuff,” the low-budget “Gun Crazy” was directed by Joseph H. Lewis and secretly co-written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who devised a tale of sex and violence and of love destroyed by greed.
Cummins played Annie Laurie Starr, a sharpshooter in a travelling carnival who hooks up with a local marksman, Bart Tare, played by John Dall. Tare is an ex-reform school student who wants to go straight, but Starr shames (and seduces) him into a life of crime, telling him: “I want things, a lot of things, big things.” His reluctance to fire a gun is more than compensated by her willingness to kill anyone.
“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,'” Lewis later explained.
The film’s erotic energy and documentary style eventually made it a cult favourite, with admirers including the French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. In the mid-1960s, when writers David Newman and Robert Benton were trying to sell a synopsis for what became “Bonnie and Clyde,” Truffaut arranged a screening of “Gun Crazy” and suggested it as inspiration. In 1998, the Library of Congress selected “Gun Crazy” for preservation for being “culturally, historically, or esthetically significant.”
Cummins made just a handful of American movies, including “Escape” and “The Late George Apley,” before returning to England in 1950. She did briefly date then-aspiring politician John F. Kennedy and was asked out by Howard Hughes, only to have the wealthy aviator crash his plane and cancel their dinner plans. Back in England, she married William Herbert Derek Dunnett and remained with him until his death in 2000. They had two children.
Born Augusta Margaret Diane Fuller in Wales and raised in Dublin, she was the daughter of actress Margaret Cummins. By age 12, Peggy Cummins had starred in a stage production of “Alice in Wonderland” and by 15 had appeared in her first film, “Dr. O’Dowd.” The most notable of her later movies was the horror favourite “Night of the Demon” (also known as “Curse of the Demon”), directed by Jacques Tourneur and featuring Cummins as the niece of a psychologist whose investigation of a satanic cult leads to fatal consequences. Her final film, “In the Doghouse,” came out in 1962.
In recent years, Cummins appeared at numerous retrospectives for “Gun Crazy,” calling it her favourite production, even though she insisted she was nothing like Annie. Cummins saw herself as a country girl, indifferent to possessions and happy to raise a family. But she did appreciate the chance to misbehave on the screen.
“The tendency was then, that if you’re short and blonde and reasonably pretty, you always played rather pretty parts,” she said at a 2012 screening in Hollywood. “To tell you the truth, I always wanted to play all the Bette Davis parts.”