Forty Guns (1957)

Samuel Fuller | 1hr 20min

In this classical Western tale of law enforcers, landowners, and mercenaries, somehow Samuel Fuller always finds the most inventive angle to frame their vicious clashes. When reformed gunslinger Griff approaches the town of Tombstone in the opening scene and is rushed by a herd of cowboys, the camera peers out from under his wagon and horses’ legs, dangerously at risk of being trampled. After he arrives and is confronted by local troublemaker Brockie, we cut into an extreme close-up of his eyes while he confidently strides down the street, several years before Sergio Leone would use the exact same technique. When two of Brockie’s friends seek revenge, Fuller’s low angle reveals the hidden shotgun emerging from the window right above Griff, heightening the dramatic irony of his own obliviousness. Forty Guns draws significantly from the mythology surrounding lawman Wyatt Earp and his time spent restoring order to the real Tombstone, and yet in Fuller’s skilled hands, it becomes a refreshingly imaginative, female-centric fable.

An extremely low angle revealing the suspense and dramatic irony of the scene – a rifle emerging from a window above an oblivious Griff on the street below.
Fuller shoots and edits this showdown like a Sergio Leone film. When his camera isn’t right in Griff’s eyes with extreme close-ups, there is constant attention paid to the blocking and background. Especially in the second shot of the three above, there is such a clear sense of geography and tension conveyed through his intelligent staging.

She’s no public official, but Jessica Drummond wilfully rules this town with her forty hired gunmen by her side, while turning a blind eye to their own misdeeds. Next to Barry Sullivan’s passable lead performance, Barbara Stanwyck easily commands the screen in this role, adding the Western genre to her repertoire of melodramas, noirs, and screwball comedies that she had already proven her hand at. Whether she is aiming to inspire laughter or fear though, there is often a hardy resilience to her characterisations, and it only matures here in her middle age. When an arrest warrant arrives at her headquarters, Fuller follows its movement through the hands of twenty men lining a table, and at its head Stanwyck sits as a calm, authoritative figure, letting the sheer quantity of men beneath her speak for itself.

A letter is passed through the hands of twenty men lining one side of this extra long table, leading to Barbara Stanwyck at the end – the most powerful of them all.

The cool fluidity of Fuller’s camera movement is weaved all through Forty Guns in some remarkable tracking shots, the longest of which set a record at Fox Studios with its four-minute take descending the side of a building and traversing the entire length of the town. In a more delicate scene after Griff saves Jessica from being swept away by a tornado, the two rivals find an unlikely romance burgeoning between them, and as they lie on the floor of a barn, the camera gradually floats down from its rafters towards them. Bit by bit, Fuller closes the distance between us and these hardened lovers, inviting us into their sweet but unusual dynamic. Even their dialogue crackles like partners in a film noir, giving Stanwyck the opportunity to call back to her own iconic role of Double Indemnity’s whip-smart femme fatale.

“I don’t kill for hire.”

“I’m sure you don’t kill for fun.”

“I’m sure you’re sure.”

A magnificent long take that drifts down from the rafters of the barn to Griff and Jessica below, where Fuller casts shadows and light across their romantic interaction.

Griff isn’t the only outsider to find companionship in this town either. One of his younger brothers, Wes, takes a strong liking to the local gunsmith’s daughter, and in a James Bond-like shot Fuller frames her coquettish smile at us down the barrel of a rifle. Meanwhile, his other brother, Chico, is making his own enemies, killing an assailant on the verge of shooting Griff. In effect, these three men are shaking up Tombstone’s dynamic in a major way, and Fuller makes superb use of CinemaScope to reflect that in his intricate compositions of actors staged across its black-and-white, widescreen canvas. The depth of field in his cinematography is exquisite, arranging dozens of extras around his leads and into the background, while his long shots of Tombstone develop the town into its own dangerously irresistible character.

The James Bond gun barrel shot – though preceding Bond by a few years.
Fuller works with dozens of actors in his ensemble, and always finds a place for each of them in his meticulously arranged frames.

Griff may strike the image of a Western hero seeking to bring order to the American frontier, and yet even his righteous sense of justice is tainted by his vengeful fury following Wes’ murder at the hands of Brockie – Jessica’s own brother. Fuller takes the time to mourn this tragedy, delicately placing long dissolves over close-ups of his characters’ morose faces, before launching into a second showdown between Griff and Brockie that mirrors their first, though with a far greater dose of merciless rage. That Griff barely hesitates to shoot Jessica when she is taken as a human shield is totally shocking given all that has unfolded between them, though perhaps this is outdone by her surprising decision to subsequently relinquish power, forgive his killing of her brother, and follow him out into the world. Such rich, complex character transformations bring touches of bitterness and sensitivity to this revision of the Old West, examining these qualities in its male and female leaders alike, and eloquently uniting both in Fuller’s eccentric visual expressions.

Forty Guns is not currently available to stream in Australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s