Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan
Director: Samuel Fuller
“She’s a high ridin’ woman with a whip…” The spicy theme song, plus the film’s plethora of double entendres (“May I feel it?” Barbara Stanwyck asks of Barry Sullivan’s six shooter. “It may go off in your face,” he warns her) has earned Forty Guns (1957) a reputation as a lurid, kitsch horse opera in much the same mould as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Actually, it’s a far more thoughtful and considered film, the closest thing director Samuel Fuller came to making a Hawksian western.
Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a tough, formidable businesswoman who dresses up like Elizabeth I when she’s at home and who is the de facto governor and tax collector of Cochise County. Alas, she’s let down by the stupid and corrupt goons who work for her and her drunken good for nothing of a younger brother. Forced to clean up after them, she’s put on a collision course with visiting marshal Griff Bonnell (Sullivan playing Wyatt Earp in all but name). This is all the more tragic as she and Griff feel an instant connection when they meet.
The dialogue emphasis an element of crackling sexual tension, but actually, the way the two leads play it, it’s more of a sweet-tempered Autumn romance, a question of an Alpha male and an Alpha female suddenly finding their soulmate late in life – and they do have a great deal in common: they’re both survivors, shaping the land they live in, and their both have siblings whom they fret about. The fact that both Sullivan and Stanwyck were showing their age by this stage of their career only adds to the charm and pathos of the pairing.
As you would expect with Fuller, the whole thing is told in an urgent, compressed style full of virtuoso camerawork, but it’s in the warmth of its characterisation and the thoughtfulness of its gender politics that Forty Guns really impresses and endears. 9/10
Fuller’s striking b/w ‘Scope compositions come up very nicely in this silvery-toned transfer, with no grain and plenty of detail. Early on, you can clearly see the dust caked on the faces of Griff and his brothers as they trundle into town, and the tracking shot of Barney carrying buckets to the bathhouse, with the mining town spread out behind him, has a crystal clear depth of field. Later on, the dust-storm scene has an eerie, dreamlike beauty. Fuller fans will be delighted. 9/10
16 min featurette in which a French critic places the film in the context of what was happening in Hollywood in the ’50s and the decline of the western, points out its use of well-researched period details and explains how the original bleak, downbeat ending was substituted for a softer, more romantic one. ~ Audio-only interview with Samuel Fuller recorded in 1969, which serves in the place of a conventional audio commentary. The director tends to wander around the point, but eventually tells some amusing, jokey anecdotes about his start in the film business as a writer, explaining how his early scripts drew on his background in journalism. 6/10