Philip Concannon on Samuel Fuller’s monochrome CinemaScope western, out on Bluray today from Masters of Cinema
Samuel Fuller knew the importance of a good start. “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage,” he once said, and his 1957 film Forty Guns commands the viewer’s attention before the opening credits have even rolled. Fuller fills the CinemaScope frame with a shot of a vast empty landscape, through which three weary men are travelling. They hear the horses before they see them, a distant rumbling catching their attention moments before a band of gunmen appears on the horizon, surrounding and passing this small carriage in a storm of hooves and dust. The men look behind them as the horses disappear into the distance, scarcely able to believe what they’ve just seen. Forty men on black horses led by a single woman on a white stallion. That woman is Barbara Stanwyck.
“She’s a high-ridin’ woman with a whip” we are informed by Jidge Carroll’s theme song, and Jessica Drummond rules over her domain with a ruthlessness that ensures her authority is never questioned. The place is Tombstone, Arizona and the time is 1881, but Forty Guns is a deliberate attempt by Fuller to twist old legends into something that feels strange, new and exciting. He finds fresh and cinematically dynamic ways to stage familiar situations; look at the way he shoots a scene in which veteran lawman Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) wanders into an ambush, for example, or the way Griff faces down his armed adversary by simply walking towards him (“There’s only one man walks like that!”), intimidating the gunman and getting close enough to lay him out with one punch.
Griff has sworn off ever firing his gun again, but Fuller’s film is about the irresistible and destructive pull of the gun, and the way violence creates a cycle that sucks everyone into it. “My story hinged on America’s pervasive fascination with guns. Hell if I know why people think guns are sexy,” Fuller wrote in his autobiography, and he plays on the idea by constantly linking guns and sexual potency throughout the film – the chapter of his book that covers Forty Guns is even called “Stuffed with Phalluses”. Griff’s brother Wes (Gene Barry) falls in love with the local gunsmith (Eve Brent), spying her through the sight of his rifle and kissing her as they both wield weapons. “I never kissed a gunsmith before,” he says after their first embrace, “Any recoil?” she replies with a sly smirk. This metaphor reaches comically blunt levels during a late night encounter between Griff and Jessica, when she invites him to come and work for her.
“I don’t figure the job is my size.”
“It could be any size you want it to be. I’m not interested in you, Mr Bonell. It’s your trademark. May I feel it?”
“It might go off in your face.”
“I’ll take a chance.”
What better actress to deliver these lines than Barbara Stanwyck? Her delivery of this innuendo-laden dialogue is as perfect here as it was in Double Indemnity over a decade earlier, and her imperious performance in Forty Guns is one of the best from her great career. Fuller knows exactly how to use Stanwyck, and understands that her face and body can speak just as loudly as the words on the page. “There was a scene loaded with a page of monologue and she knew it perfectly,” the director recalls, “I asked her, before the take, to eliminate the gibble-gabble and show the words in her face. Her eyes did it superbly.” She even put her body on the line for the film, stepping up when her stuntwoman didn’t want to do a dangerous scene that required her to be dragged by a horse with her foot caught in the stirrup. Stanwyck did three takes.
Fuller had intended for Jessica to die at the end of Forty Guns, shot along with her brother by Griff, who has now returned to the life of violence he once renounced. 20th Century Fox balked at this conclusion, forcing Fuller to film a compromised version, but Forty Guns still has moments of piercing tragedy that cut straight to the heart. Fuller brilliantly utilises a series of quick edits as Wes and Louvenia’s wedding day ends in tragedy, and a later scene between Jessica, Griff and the local Sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) is one of the most powerful things Fuller ever shot. Loyal and lovestruck, Ned has come to declare his devotion for Jessica only to be coldly rebuffed. Fuller’s brilliant use of the wide frame emphasises the awkwardness and humiliation in this moment as Ned’s heart is broken, and the dull sound of knocking a few seconds later indicates that Jessica’s actions have pushed him to breaking point.
It’s scenes like this that seem to exemplify the cinema of Sam Fuller for me, stylised filmmaking choices used to deliver a shot of pure emotion directly to the audience, and if I was asked to choose a quintessential Sam Fuller picture, I think Forty Guns would be one of the first films I’d reach for. It’s a narrative cut down to the bone that’s still invested with thematic depth and complexity and emotional weight; it’s shot and edited with ingenuity and full of stunning ‘Scope images (Joseph Biroc’s high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is magnificent); it’s as rough and raw and thrilling today as it was almost 60 years ago. I haven’t even mentioned the tornado that Fuller throws in to the middle of the picture. Not bad for a movie shot in less than 10 days.