Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, John Ericson
Running Time: 80 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
As regular readers will know, I've been enjoying working my way through the classic westerns over the last couple of years. Eureka added Anthony Mann's Man of the West (my review can be found here) to their Masters of Cinema lineup not too long ago and I was delighted to hear that they were mining the genre once again by releasing Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns this month.
Forty Guns stars the great Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond, a wealthy landowner in Arizona. She's a powerful woman who has control over the 'forty guns' of the title, a band of riders who help her maintain her dominant position over the area alongside her ability to pay off anyone she needs. When ex-hired gun Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers ride into town and put a stop to her brother Brockie's (John Ericson) drunken bullying, Jessica begins to lose her tight grip. This isn't helped by the fact that she falls in love with Griff. Brockie isn't about to let the Bonnells get away with what they did though and Jessica becomes torn between both sides whilst Griff's life is put in danger.
I think of myself as a fan of Samuel Fuller and got excited when I saw his name attached to this. However, looking back, I gave the two of his films I've reviewed previously good, but not great ratings (i.e. 3 stars). I prefer the three other films of his I've seen (Shock Corridor, Pick Up on South Street and Naked Kiss) so I guess that's a considerable enough number to call myself a fan, but even a couple of those had their flaws. I think Fuller is a director who's bold, ambitious and unflinching in tackling themes and issues less prevalent in Hollywood productions, but his films can often be a bit rough around the edges through his often quite bombastic approach.
Unfortunately I felt Forty Guns continued this personal trend of liking or appreciating, but not totally loving a number of Fuller's films. Frustratingly, for having to sit down and write a review about it, I'm struggling to put my finger on exactly what is missing here though.
Once again, the film is forward thinking and fairly unique in its theme and content, tackling the Western mystique head-on. Like many of the best westerns it looks at the end of the 'wild west'. Griff wants to turn in his guns. He last killed someone ten years ago and doesn't want to do it again. A darkly poignant moment sees Griff telling Jessica how that victim was only a boy and now he's saddened that his younger brother has made his first kill, so looks set to follow in his footsteps.
There are a few dark and disturbing moments too, such as when one villain hangs himself after he's spurned by Jessica. The climax is surprisingly shocking too, with Griff acting very coldly in a moment you would expect him to act completely the opposite.
The more I write about the film, the more I think I'm underrating it, but I can't shake the feeling that there was a little something lacking. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood when I put it on or maybe I was expecting something else. The opening sequence, which abruptly cuts between the calm and tranquil wilderness and the thundering of hooves, prepared me for an exciting action western, so maybe I just felt disappointed that it was more of an unusual drama instead. A couple of the performances weren't great, so maybe the contrast between the commanding Stanwyck and her lesser co-stars affected me, but either way I can't bring myself to award a four star rating or above.
That said, I shouldn't sound too down on the film. I did like it quite a lot, I just didn't love it as much as I expected. I can still appreciate how rewarding it is as an examination of the dangers that power can bring and it's an effective look at the end of the lawless days of the west. There are some memorably well executed scenes too, such as the handful of tense, wonderfully edited stand-offs. So perhaps I am being harsh. Most critics seem to rate the film higher, so take my opinions with a pinch of salt and give the film a go. You'll probably love it.
Forty Guns is out on 22nd June in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I watched the Blu-Ray and it looks and sounds great as is to be expected from the company.
For special features, there's an audio interview with Samuel Fuller from 1969 at the NFT in London. This is played alongside the film like an audio commentary. There's also a 17 minute interview with film critic Jean-Louis Leutrat about the film. Unfortunately I haven't had time to watch or listen to either of these features, but its seems like a good pairing. I'm especially looking forward to listening to the Fuller interview at some point.
As usual with Eureka's releases, you also get a booklet included with the discs, which I didn't get a copy of this time, but I'm sure is jam packed with essays, stills and other such goodies.