Updated: Jun 30
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Desperate to escape the hangman’s noose after being convicted of murder, Brock Drummond (John Ericson), uses his sister Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) as a shield in “Forty Guns’” climactic, genre-defying showdown.
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“FORTY GUNS: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray and DVD, 1957, unrated
Best extra: The excerpt from Fuller’s posthumous autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking”
THERE’S NO question that Samuel Fuller took Joseph Mankiewicz’s advice.
The Oscar-winning writer-director (“A Letter to Three Wives,” “All About Eve”), one of Fuller’s inspirations, had fought some hard battles over his long career, Fuller recounts in an excerpt from his autobiography, “A Third Face,” and he “encouraged me to never stop fighting for my personal vision in Hollywood.”
Fuller had written and directed some solid features while under contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, including 1951’s hard-hitting “The Steel Helmet,” but in 1956 went solo and started his indie production outfit, Globe Enterprises.
“With ‘Forty Guns,’” he writes, “I’d really hit my stride.” Fuller set the bar high, too: He wanted to make “a different kind of Western,” one in a league with such trailblazers as Anthony Mann’s “The Furies” (1950) and Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar” (1954).
He did just that, employing all the genre’s tropes then turning them on their head.
Retired gunman Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan, “The Bad and the Beautiful”), now a U.S. marshal, and his brothers Wes (Gene Barry, “The War of the Worlds”) and Chico (Robert Dix, “Forbidden Planet”) are on their way to California when they meet the real law of Cochise County, Ariz.: ruthless rancher Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck, “Double Indemnity”).
And what an entrance. Dressed in black astride a white horse, Stanwyck, an accomplished rider who did her own stunts, leads her dragoons over a ridge and down the valley as they thunder past the Bonells’ wagon.
(1) In an excerpt from his autobiography, director-writer Samuel Fuller says, “We went up into one of those arid California valleys with unbroken vistas” to film the long shots. In the spectacular opening sequence, a cloud’s shadow moves across the frame as a wagon makes its way to Tombstone, Ariz. (2) U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), center, a retired gunman, and his brothers Wes (Gene Barry), right, and Chico (Robert Dix) are about to meet the real law in Cochise County. (3&4) Jessica Drummond, the authoritarian rancher who rules the county, leads her dragoons toward the approaching wagon. And, kicks up a cloud of dust as they charge past it in two columns. Stanwyck insisted on doing her own stunts.
The brothers aren’t in Tombstone long when Jessica’s delinquent brother Brock (John Ericson, “Bad Day at Black Rock”) shoots up the town and blinds its aging lawman. Griff throws him in jail, but he’s soon sprung by corrupt Sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger, “Twelve O’Clock High”) and a crooked court.
Short story: Jessica is drawn to Griff, Wes falls for the gunsmith’s daughter and Chico resists going to California so he can stay on as Griff’s second gun. No more spoilers except to say that, even though Fuller dialed it back a bit, the climactic showdown between Griff and Brock shatters convention.
So does the dialogue, which is loaded with innuendo. After they kiss for the first time, Eve asks Wes, “Any recoil?” And when Jessica reaches for Griff’s gun, he warns her, “It might go off in your face.”
In her excellent essay, author Lisa Dombrowski (“The Films of Samuel Fuller”) details other ways in which Fuller broke the rules, including his unorthodox approach to the marriage and funeral scenes and showdown, and points out how Fuller and cinematographer Joseph Biroc (“Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” “The Towering Inferno”) used CinemaScope to compose the truly spectacular wide shots and give the close-ups their off-kilter appeal.
Another new extra brings in critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City,” who says that with its complex characters, double-dealing and overarching theme of corruption, “Forty Guns” wouldn’t be out of place on the shadowy backstreets.
For his part, Fuller writes that the “story hinged on America’s pervasive fascination with guns. … In real life, there are just too many guns and too many violent people who have access to them.”
(1) Bonell and gunsmith Shotgun Spanger (Gerald Milton) tend to lawman John Chisum (Hank Worden) after he’s shot by Brock Drummond. Fuller makes excellent use of CinemaScope even in the tight shots. (2) Lethal, hot-headed Brock Drummond, Jessica’s punk brother, goes on a bender and shoots up Tombstone. (3) Jessica’s one weakness is for her delinquent brother. (4) Brock wants his girlfriend Rio (Ziva Rodann) to tell Jessica that he didn’t impregnate her. When she refuses, he slaps her around.
The icing is the transfer, which was created in 4K (aspect ratio 2.35:1) from the 35 mm original camera negative. Except for one scene that goes a little soft, the print is superb: sharp contrasts, deep blacks, wide grayscale, stable, not a trace of dirt. The icing on the icing is the detail. Case in point: I paused the movie at one point and on my way out of the room, was stopped by close-ups of Stanwyck and Sullivan.
“Forty Guns” isn’t the first Fuller title in the Criterion catalogue. It scored big with the Blu-ray releases of “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964), and put out his classic 1963 film noir “Pickup on South Street,” “White Dog” (1982), his controversial exposé on racism in America, and a three-title set that includes “The Steel Helmet” on DVD.
So, what’s holding up a Blu-ray makeover for “South Street” and “White Dog”? And while you’re at it, please get ahold of “The Big Red One” (1980) and add “Underworld U.S.A.” (1961) and “House of Bamboo” (1955) to the mix.
― Craig Shapiro
(1) In her interview, author Imogen Sara Smith says that Jessica was Stanwyck’s last great film role before she started a decades-long career in television. (2) Bonell and Ned Logan (Dean Jagger), Tombstone’s corrupt sheriff, hurry to Swain after he’s gunned down in his cell. (3) Swain’s lifeless body is propped up in a window in an effort to turn the town against the Bonell brothers. (4) In one of the movie’s most memorable lines, Jessica, who’s fallen for Griff, tells him, “What’s happened to us is like a war. Easy to start, hard to stop.” It’s vintage Samuel Fuller. (5) Wes and Lovenia (Eve Brent), Shotgun Spanger’s gunsmith daughter, get ready to pose for a wedding shot. Their happiness doesn’t last long.
Criterion Collection featurette clip