USA 1957 : Samuel FULLER : 79-80 mins
Keen to prove the versatility of their then-new-fangled CinemaScope format, 20th Century Fox set Fuller the task of making a low-budget black-and-white western. They couldn’t have chosen a much better man for the job – quick, economic and witty, this is easily one of the most entertaining late examples of the ‘horse opera’ genre. As usual in westerns, it’s the “end of an era” – 1881, in a small Arizona settlement. The local Queen Bee is Jessica Drummond (steely Barbara Stanwyck), who rides around imperious on her white steed at the head of a forty-strong all-male hired-gun posse.
Though she runs a tight ship, one or two of her ‘boys’ cause enough trouble to attract the attention of the US Marshals, who send in the famed Bonell brothers – world-weary lawman Griff (Barry Sullivan), laconic Wes (grinning Gene Barry) and youthful Chico (Robert Dix). It doesn’t take long before the antagonism between Griff and Jessica turns into a more romantic kind of passion – and Griff plans to settle down with apprentice gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent). But there’s trouble just around the corner, in the form of Jessica’s hot-headed, proto-juvenile-delinquent brother Brocky (over-the-top John Ericson).
Strictly speaking, Forty Guns isn’t a ‘B movie’ – the Cinemascope gimmick was still enough of an attraction to ensure it was shown as the main attraction in double-bills. But the brisk 80-minute running time zips along with all the energy and pace of the best Bs – there isn’t room to go into any kind of epic, convoluted frontier tale, and nor do the apparently feminist and Freudian aspects of this sexually charged tale add up to very much. Instead, Fuller wisely packs as much incident into his script as he can manage – Editor Gene Fowler Jr plays his part, most vividly in one wild sequence in which a wedding segues abruptly into a funeral when the groom is unexpectedly shot.
As usual, Fuller finds time for a couple of camera tricks – the image goes blurry when we share a near-blind old man’s perspective, and when Wes looks at Louvenia down a rifle-sight she’s shown smiling as if at the end of a tunnel (like 007’s opening titles). The try-anything director also has a lot of fun experimenting with the widescreen format that suits the ‘big sky country’ of the western landscape so well. One highlight is a lifelike ‘twister attack’ in which Stanwyck seems to be performing her own hazardous stunts when Jessica is dragged along behind her horse.
On a more intimate level, there’s an outstanding gag involving a very long dining table that (we gradually realise) fills the whole of the extended image. And while Fuller’s intentions is partly to amuse, there’s no sense of parody here: this is a movie that has fun with the tough-talking conventions of the genre while paying them total respect. “I’ve never kissed a gunsmith before,” says Wes during a clinch. “Any recoil?” Louvenia shoots back. The final shoot-out between Griff and Brocky is even better – when Brocky takes his sister hostage, the crack-shot lawman brings the stand-off to an amusingly fast conclusion.
25th March, 2003
(seen 21st March, Pictureville Bradford – Bradford Film Festival)
by Neil Young