A Western that’s thoroughly urban in its outlook, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns was made at the height of his most fertile filmmaking period in the 1950s – he released China Gate and Run of the Arrow the same year – and represents a studio director working at the peak of his form: fast, vicious, and cutting all necessary corners. The forty guns of the title are the passel of mercenaries backing up Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a rancher who’s the unofficial boss of a whole Arizona county and packs more of a wallop on her own than all her hired guns. At this stage, a few years past her bombshell prime, Stanwyck still cuts a mean, black-clad figure whipping her white horse into the horizon. (No stunt rider for this actress.)
Justice arrives in the laconic form of Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), the federal marshal who comes to town with his two brothers, Wes (Gene Barry, grizzled) and Chico (Robert Dix, resembling a young Robert Vaughn), ready to clean things up. This interferes with the desire of Jessica’s wastrel brother Brockie (John Ericson) to do things like get drunk and terrorize the town with the forty guns, and so the big showdown is set up. Jessica gets stuck right in the middle, torn between wanting to protect little Brockie and falling in love with Griff, a legendary gunslinger who’s just about as granite-hewn as she is; an impressive feat.
Although obviously shot on the quick, Fuller’s eye for big Cinemascope shots is unerring, and he’s admirably willing to shove the camera into jarring angles at appropriate times, upsetting the normally staid visual conventions of contemporary Westerns. The dialogue, while typically overripe – Wes tells his girl, ‘I’ve never kissed a gunsmith before,’ and she replies, ‘Any recoil?’ – is the sort of material you’d normally hear getting snarled out by big city hoods from under snap-brim fedoras, not cowboy hats. The emotional temperature, therefore, revs rather high, with passions bubbling over (professions of love, suicide, an especially tragic murder) in a manner rarely seen in a genre where the stars usually save their strongest feelings for their horses and six-guns. There’s little romanticizing of shootouts, either, one long and expertly handled showdown tracks Griff down the town’s main drag (quick close-ups on his eye, cutting away to his rival’s gun, establishing the rhythm years before Sergio Leone), only to have him ultimately cuff the guy, with contemptuous and merciful speed. That said, Fuller devises a neat little ambush in an alleyway near the morgue that gets the blood racing just fine. And the final shootout is quick and dirty, shocking in its resolute lack of heroic theatrics.
Since Forty Guns is less of open spaces than of closed ones, mostly forsaking the wide open spaces for the dusty streets of town, it moves at a film noir’s pace, clocking in at a speedy 79 minutes, all excess material burned off. A stirring example of how economy need not mean expediency.
The 20th Century Fox DVD has been long in coming, as Forty Guns has never been available on VHS – surprising given the waves it stirred on release due to the cynicism of its outlook and the dialogue’s brazenly sexual overtones – but disappointingly offering no special features besides a trailer. Picture transfer is quite good, excepting the nighttime scenes, where the blacks tend to get muddy, while the sound is uniformly excellent. Widescreen and fullscreen versions.
Aka 40 Guns.
39 to go.