FORTY GUNS (Fuller, 1957)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 11, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long
“She's a high-ridin' woman with a whip!”
The theme song of Samuel Fuller's “Forty Guns” (1957) promises greatness, and the opening shot sure delivers. As the three heroic Bonnell brothers ride into town, their rickety little horse cart is nearly blown off the winding dirt road by Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), decked out in black and ridin' high (though sans whip) on a white stallion. She kicks up a swirling cloud of dust in advance of the long line of men (her forty guns, splitting to the edges of the Cinemascope frame) trailing behind her. The Bonnells can only gasp in awe as she races away, not even noticing them.
Eventually, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) will prove man enough to earn Jessica's attention. The legendary gun fighter who avoids shootouts because he “can't miss” can't help but be fascinated by the woman who rules over a sprawling business empire. The two alpha personalities have something else in common, pesky little brothers weighing them down. In Griff's case, it's just eager beaver Chico (Robert Dix) desperate to prove he's man enough to assist big brother. For Jessica, it's the rotten-to-the-core Brockie (John Ericson), the kind of low-down owlhoot who'd shoot a blind man just for laughs.
Shooting independently, though with financing from Fox, Fuller indulges his pulpiest sensibilities, producing the florid but gritty style that made him a cinephile favorite. His punchy script is replete with shameless double entendres. Jessica asks Griff for his gun: “Can I feel it?” Griff: “It might go off in your face.” Fuller frames one view of actress Eve Brent from the inside of a rifle barrel, an early version of the trademark James Bond credits shot.
Stanwyck clearly relishes her role as the kind of woman who, as the song informs us, “commands and men obey.” In an inspired bit of staging, Griff delivers a legal warrant to Jessica while she dines at her compound. She sits at the head of a very long table with twenty men on each side, and the warrant is passed from man to man (Cinemascope at work again) before being placed respectfully into her hands. Just in case the message needs to be reinforced, Jessica later reminds one flunky, “I'm your boss, not your partner!”
The various relationships and conflicts among Jessica, Griff, and their respective siblings revolve around dueling standards of traditional masculinity, providing grist for the mill of many a psychoanalytic film studies thesis. However, the movie isn't as noteworthy for its plot as for its host of quintessential Fuller touches. The tight close-up on Griff's face as he strides implacably towards an overmatched Brockie in a street showdown surely provided the inspiration for many a spaghetti Western standoff. A jarring cut from a man swinging from a noose to a room full of jovial cowboys splashing in tubs is as pure Fuller as it gets.
Unfortunately, the theme song provides all too oracular: “If someone could break her and take her whip away... you may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all.” In what Fuller describes as a studio compromise from his bleaker initial vision, the film ends with Jessica having been almost fully tamed, ready to give up everything for the hero. Perhaps it played better with audiences back then. Today, I suspect we'd all rather see her ridin' high and flailing that whip.
Regardless, the film provided one last great leading role for Stanwyck who, nearly fifty when production began, was near the end of her feature film career, and clearly still at the height of her prowess. For Fuller, in his mid-forties and also at the peak of his career, it was just one of three good movies he would wrap in the same year, along with “Run of the Arrow” and “China Gate.” Fuller obviously didn't mess around on set.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio. The Criterion booklet only mentions that the transfer was “restored by Twentieth Century Fox.” However extensive the restoration, this high-def transfer looks fantastic with a deep, grainy black-and-white image that looks, well, exactly like a Western should.
The linear PCM mono track is clean and functional. There's not much complex sound design to deal with here, just dialogue and, of course, that theme song. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.
For a slight change of pace, Criterion has included a 1969 discussion with Samuel Fuller which can be played like a commentary track while watching the film. It was conducted at the National Film Theatre in London in 1969.
In “Fuller Women” (2018, 20 min.), the director's widow Christa Lang Fuller and his daughter Samantha Fuller discuss Samuel's work with a focus on the strong women featured in some of his films.
In “Woman With A Whip” (2018, 34 min.), critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of “Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City,” discusses both Fuller's work (particular its relationship to noir) and Stanwyck's career.
“A Fuller Life” (2013, 80 min.) is a documentary directed by Samantha Fuller. After an introduction by Ms. Fuller, the documentary consists primarily of a series of actors, directors, and other film figures (James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Mark Hamill, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellmann among them) who read excerpts from Samuel Fuller's memoir, “A Third Face,” sometimes over clips from Fuller's films, sometimes over never-before-seen home movies. It's a real blast, like a movie about Samuel Fuller should be.
Finally, we get a Stills Gallery, mostly on-set photos from “Forty Guns.”
The insert booklet includes an essay by critic and professor Lisa Dombrowski, author of “The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I'll Kill You!” as well as an excerpt from Fuller's memoirs concerning “Forty Guns.”
Sam Fuller apparently shot this film in all of fifteen days, but then again, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. This is now the eighth Fuller title in the Criterion/Eclipse library, but only the third on Blu-ray (“Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” were early Criterion releases that got later Blu-ray upgrades). The top-notch high-def transfer and the strong collection of extras make this, perhaps, the most appealing Fuller release from Criterion so far.