British writer/producer/director/actor Tony Garnett – who died in 2020 – was probably best known for his work with Ken Loach on groundbreaking projects like ‘Cathy Come Home’, ‘Kes’ and ‘Up The Junction’.
But his move to America in the early 1980s – after his debut, Birmingham-set feature ‘Prostitute’ – produced a quintessential ‘forbidden’ cult film, barely seen, not clipped on YouTube, poorly received/marketed and just squeaking out once on Channel 4 in the UK during the mid 1980s (the chances of it showing up on that terrestrial channel these days are precisely nil…).
But ‘Handgun’ – released 40 years ago this week – is also a fascinating, disturbing, gripping film, well worth reappraisal despite its notorious reputation.
Garnett embarked on the movie after a period researching gun laws in Texas. He settled on the story of an open-hearted, homesick young teacher named Kathleen who has moved from the East Coast to Dallas. She meets a local guy – a lawyer – who rapes her at gunpoint (an attack that we don’t see). What follows is controversial but also somewhat unexpected.
The film features strikingly naturalistic performances in classic Garnett style, actors (including excellent leads Karen Young, later to turn up in ‘9 1/2 Weeks’, and Clayton Day) mingling with non-actors to disarming effect. Accordingly, Garnett mixes ‘classic filmmaking’ with near documentary footage.
Meanwhile, Mike Post’s austere music adds grandeur. He’d just finished work on ‘The A Team’, ‘Magnum PI’ and ‘Hill Street Blues’!
Garnett intends to provoke. ‘Handgun’ very pointedly begins on Dealey Plaza, and the film looks at the role of the gun at the centre of American culture and its implied role in the subjugation of women and Native Americans. Note also the photo of John Lennon above Kathleen’s bed.
Some reviewers including ‘Time Out’ described ‘Handgun’ as an exploitative film. It’s actually a resolutely untitillating, moral movie which has resonance today in both the personal and political realms. But it certainly seems to have been let down with its marketing, including the dodgy poster above which takes it more into ‘I Spit On Your Grave’/’Ms. 45’ territory (but when did you last hear a woman’s voiceover on a movie trailer?)
‘Handgun’ got a paltry release in the UK and then crawled out a year later in the US with a strange new title ‘Deep In The Heart’, Warner Bros. focused on their other ‘rape revenge’ film, Clint Eastwood’s wretched ‘Sudden Impact’. But it lives on courtesy of a very good DVD print, one to look out for.
Garnett moved back to Blighty at the end of the 1980s and went on to helm other brilliant TV shows such as ‘This Life’ and ‘The Cops’.
Further reading: ‘The Day The Music Died’ by Tony Garnett.