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Forty Guns

Forty Guns(1957)

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Forty Guns might not be the best of Samuel Fuller's string of 1950s movies for Twentieth Century-Fox, but it certainly is the most lurid and a must-see for anyone interested in directors who worked wonders in genre films during that decade. The difference between Fuller and such contemporaries as Phil Karlson, Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann is that he not only directed such distinctive movies as House of Bamboo and Pickup on South Street, he also wrote and produced them, and he had an avid supporter in studio head Darryl Zanuck, who gave Fuller unusual creative freedom to make his low-budget movies.

Fuller was also more on a stylistic limb than his contemporaries. Fuller's operatic sort of exaggerated reality can be found in such later directors as Sergio Leone and Seijun Suzuki, but in few other 1950s studio films. In Forty Guns, his overheated tale of a hard-nosed female rancher-tycoon who meets her romantic match in the U.S. Marshal who stands up to her, Fuller includes gunfights, love scenes, two onscreen ballads and more Freudian dialogue than every other movie from 1957 combined. Fuller's gut-level theatrics regularly veer to the edge of self-parody. For instance, the title refers to the 40 gunslingers Barbara Stanwyck's Jessica Drummond has in her employ, and in the rousing opening her thundering herd, which she leads on her white mount, stampedes past the buckboard bringing Barry Sullivan's Griff Bonnell and his two brothers (Gene Barry, Robert Dix) to Cochise County, the area where everything is under her thumb. But when Griff visits her spread to serve an arrest warrant on one of those hired guns, he finds Jessica and her henchmen at dinner, all seated at the same ridiculously long table. It could have been a moment from Blazing Saddles.

Mel Brooks's spoof also comes to mind when several of the drunk gunmen, including Jessica's bad egg brother Brockie (John Ericson), raise hell in nearby Tombstone, breaking windows, firing guns and scaring passersby. Of course, they're pulling none other than Slim Pickens's "Number 6" dastardly deed from that movie: "riding into town, whampin' and whompin' every living thing that moves within an inch of its life." (Ironically, cinematographer Joseph Biroc shot both movies.) Brockie's impulsive shenanigans are what really bring Jessica and Griff into conflict, when Griff pistol-whips the hellraiser and has him thrown in jail. Although Jessica and her cronies quickly spring Brockie from his cell, Griff has made an enemy of both Drummond siblings.

It's here that Fuller's script stumbles a bit. Although Griff and Jessica have previously sized each other up, and she asked to feel his "trademark" (that would be his, um, gun) and offered her the job replacing her current bought-and-paid-for sheriff (Dean Jagger), there's little reason to think she would fall in love with him. Sturdy Sullivan is, as usual, rather colorless, and even though Fuller throws Griff and Jessica together during a well-staged twister (with Stanwyck clearly doing her own stunt when being pulled by her hysterical horse), what happens when they seek shelter in a clay shack has never fully convinced me of their love. The scene inside, which may or may not take place after the two have had sex, is just too brief to get the job done, with a few lines of dialogue and a semi-hug. You just have to go along with it, and I don┬┐t find the passion in Fuller's exercise in style as convincing as that in the ultimate Stanwyck western, Mann's The Furies.

Leave it to Brockie to continue to prevent Jessica and Griff from happily settling their differences and cultivating their affair. He still harbors a grudge against Griff, and his vengeance spills over to affect Griff's brothers and one of those brothers's fiancee, the sexy gunsmith's daughter played by Eve Brent (who fires off as much phallic innuendo as anyone here). As Brockie's attempts to kill Griff fail, the violence scares off many of Jessica's high-powered cronies, and puts all three on the path to a showdown that Fuller gives a typically askew twist (though, in his memoir A Third Face he detailed an even more unconventional ending Fox insisted he change). As with the sexual spark between Jessica and Griff, there are a few other plot turns where you wish the 79-minute movie would take a minute and better explain its characters' actions, especially Jessica's towards the end.

The occasional lapses in plot only slightly diminish Fuller's talent as a visual storyteller in Forty Guns. If Fuller played it safe and didn't grab your lapels and try to shake you with his tale, the movie wouldn't be worth revisiting nearly 50 years after it was made. But Stanwyck leading 20 two-horse tandems across Jessica's ranch, Griff's "walk" to face down Brockie and that massive dinner table are all indelible movie images. The lone extra on the Forty Guns DVD, the frenzied trailer narrated by prolific voice actor Paul Frees, makes dramatic use of such high-octane Fuller moments.

For more information about Forty Guns, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Forty Guns, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman