Forty Guns

Director Samuel Fuller’s action-packed Western features Barbara Stanwyck doing her own stunts as a ruthless landowner seeking to keep her drunken brother out of trouble when lawmen ride into town in search of a gunman under her employ.


$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry.

20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck understandably wouldn’t let Samuel Fuller employ Woman With a Whip as a title for his sometimes gonzo 1957 Western (pause here to absorb this). And then there’s Fuller’s later assertion that queen-of-the-lot Marilyn Monroe herself was interested in the movie’s lead role. One can envision such a mind-expanding combo adding a couple million to the grosses via resourceful counter-programming against a year that also gave us Universal-International’s Tammy and the Bachelor — but wait. Fuller ended up doing more than well enough with what came to be known as Forty Guns, with Barbara Stanwyck establishing quite the physically active on-screen presence once she signed on — and at age 50 at that. Now, a half-century later, here it is getting Criterion treatment.

Per usual when it comes to Fuller, the result can be a matter of taste even for those favorably disposed to this producer-writer-director-auteur. And this was so from the very beginning of an entire career of movies that forewent standard editing rhythms to become a succession of high points (which can be exhilarating for some and numbing for others). There was also the filmmaker’s predilection toward the risible, as in Guns’ roving troubadour who strums his guitar down dusty streets to sing about both the story-central woman and her whip. Well, it was ’57, and guitars were everywhere this side of Eisenhower’s Cabinet.

Fortunately, Fuller opens with a gorgeously shot caravan of lickety-split horses racing across a plain — photographed by Joseph Biroc in black-and-white CinemaScope (if you long for color here, you are not a movie person). In other words, we’re off — and, beyond that, are soon made to realize that all this land serving as the horses’ racetrack is owned by Stanwyck, who built her spread from nothing by a lot of ruthless chicanery that made it tough for her to find a lover who could compete. An added distraction has been her apparently futile attempts to maintain the hide of her drunken, shoot-em-up younger brother played by John Ericson — casting that almost makes you wonder if Cameron Mitchell was on vacation, though the role isn’t totally unlike Ericson’s in Bad Day at Black Rock except for his boozily malevolent streak. As for Stanwyck, her vengeful Western toughness here harkens back to her star turn in Anthony Mann’s even better The Furies (1950), which Criterion released as well in a deluxe DVD set but has not upgraded to Blu-ray.

Into all this rides Barry Sullivan and two brothers, including one played by Gene Barry, who only rates fifth billing here despite having just had the lead in Fuller’s China Gate. They more or less become the surrounding town’s reluctant “Law” — especially given that a going-blind marshal (The Searchers’ Hank Worden) is dispatched for good early on and the compromised sheriff (Dean Jagger) isn’t much help, either. Jagger does try taking Ericson to the woodshed on occasion, but he’s hamstrung due to his yen for Stanwyck, who has apparently given him a tumble somewhere going the way. It’s a relationship that almost anyone can see just wasn’t going to take. What’s more, Jagger knows where too many of Stanwyck’s bodies are buried; think Michael Cohen with less hair.

A long tornado sequence in the middle of the picture is Fuller at his best, and even with effects wizard Linwood Dunn’s usual magic, we can see that real-life horsewoman Stanwyck is doing her own stunts, which do not look un-strenuous by a long shot (or in close-up, for that matter). Given Fuller, the action never lets up, and the casualty rate threatens to reach Hamlet extremes — or, to keep it more in the gonzo feminist Western vernacular, maybe Johnny Guitar’s. The climax here is pretty wild-ass even in this final-release version, which Zanuck forced Fuller to water down because the sales department wouldn’t have been able to market the picture were it as brutal as intended (I can just see the stampede of ’49 Plymouths huffing their way out of drive-ins).

The movie runs only 80 minutes (about right), but that’s less than half of what Criterion has to offer. Also included is the slightly longer 2013 documentary (A Fuller Life) that daughter Samantha Fuller put together, in which former friends and associates (Constance Towers to Wim Wenders to Mark Hamill) read from the filmmaker’s memoirs. It’s a surprisingly effective way to go, but, then again, maybe not all that much so — given that the words are punctuated by dramatic home movies that the senior Fuller shot over his life, in particular the ones from his extraordinary wartime service. Few or no one had seen these because they were tucked away in the shed of archives that survived him, which is either disorganized or substantially organized disarray, depending on when we see it. This is also the setting of an additional bonus interview with Samantha and widow Christa Lang Fuller, who are good at re-enforcing each other’s memories.

Essays are bountiful, including a print essay by film historian Lisa Dombrowski, author of The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You.” Also included — and I’ve noticed the Criterion discs that Susan Arosteguy produces really storm the barricades in terms of production values — is a roughly half-hour sit-down with one of my faves (Imogen Sara Smith), who makes it all look natural and easy in an organized and well-crafted riff on Fuller and Western genre conventions in general. And synched up to the feature on an alternate soundtrack is a 1969 appearance at London’s National Film Theatre by Fuller himself, who seems to love giving 15-minute answers to questions. You just know that he had to have been an interviewer’s dream.

Forty Guns

Mike’s Picks: ‘Forty Guns’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’

Underworld U.S.A.


Available via;
Twilight Time;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay. 

I wish all the procrastinators who hold up movie lines over an eight-inch seating differential when making their picks on box office seating charts could find a way to work as fast as the late Samuel Fuller used to when he made his story points. For those not already attuned to the late writer-director’s specialized style, it’s perhaps instructional to watch the Martin Scorsese intro before Twilight Time’s crisp new Blu-ray of main event Underworld U.S.A. — the same brief featurette first seen on the old standard DVD Sony box set devoted to the filmmaker’s output at Columbia Pictures over an extended period. One can speculate on what the young Scorsese took from Fuller when learning his craft in the Eisenhower-and-Kennedy-era 42nd Street movie houses that often showed them. Bam, bam, BAM! — here was Fuller obviating the need to shoot three additional scenes by substituting a five-second transitional insert and some blistering editing.

In the annals of Pure Cinema, Fuller’s movies are as naturally clear as a swig from the old Coors Beer waterfall whose logo a onetime girlfriend gave me as a gift silkscreen made in her college art class. And yet, maybe there was a price to be paid for all this purity because only occasionally do I get any sustained emotional kick from them — and this despite my significant affection for (to name three) Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and (here’s one that did “get” to me the last time I saw it) the late-career White Dog, which was shamefully shafted by a litany of myopics for being racist when it was anything but. Though a lesser achievement than any of these, Underworld is one of Fuller’s better-to-best movies. Filmed, like The Crimson Kimono, for Columbia when he no longer benefited from the more elaborate budgets that Darryl Zanuck had given him at Fox, it almost always obscures the suspicion that it must have been filmed on the cheap, what with its minimal sets and capable actors who weren’t “names.”

There was never a time when I was able to conjure up too much excitement for Cliff Robertson as a movie lead, though he has his moments here as a not overly bright seeker of revenge against his father’s brutal killers; the actor does the same thing with his mouth that he did in his Oscar-winning performance in Charly to convey someone who’s not too sure of himself. And like the rest of the cast — including love interest (if that’s the term) Dolores Dorn, who’s more blonde/ethereal here than you’d expect an emotionally battered Fuller moll to be — the actors are often photographed dramatically. Hal Mohr, whose career lasted well over a half-century, was cinematographer, and I’m struck by the huge percentage of his credits that were (as here) in black-and-white — even though the color work he did was almost always standout magnificent: the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera (Oscared), its Susanna Foster follow-up The Climax and, matter of fact, King of Jazz.

The Robertson character is shaped as a teenager by witnessing, just feet away, his father’s brutal beating death in an alley, and maybe it could be worse: At least he doesn’t have to put up with Laura Ingraham ridicule on top of it. This said, the experience definitely warps him, not that any of the thugs involved change their ways over the years to end up being unjustly bumped off in subsequent reels. Some of these dispatchings are pretty nasty for the day in their methodology, with Fuller and Mohr doing a lot to suggest the pain quotient that some of these boys (now mob kingpins with silver hair) must be experiencing. I did note, however, that the purposeful killing of a young child by a young mob henchman doesn’t carry the all-out punch of a not dissimilar scene in Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, which was filmed six years earlier. Truth to tell — and going back even to when I was a kid — I prefer the best of Karlson, who had previously directed Fuller’s script for the very good Scandal Sheet, to the best of Fuller. In fairness, however, Karlson’s filmography is littered a bit with what feel like impersonal “assignments,” whereas Fuller was never less than his own man 100% of the time.

As previously hinted, Dorn may be too beautiful as one whose sorry life experiences could turn a lot of people into blues singers, yet she gives more than expected as one whose head is screwed on fairly well for one who’s survived the squalor she’s seen and even been a part of first-hand. The movie’s anchor is Robertson’s been-around surrogate mother, who collects dolls as perhaps an antidote to the seaminess that’s been a part of her life for even longer and chides Robertson for being a clod for not treating Dorn any better. The role is familiar, if not quite a cliché, but Beatrice Kay is so right here that I can’t figure out why she didn’t get or take more big-screen work. She could have cornered the market on the ’60s equivalent of Jacki Weaver roles for a decade or more.

The movie loses a little steam for me after the first hour (of 98 minutes) once the table is set for where it’s inevitably going, but there is definitely pleasure here in watching Fuller deal with the no-frills basics. Columbia Pictures messed around with some really lousy color processes at this time — even John Ford had to do Two Rode Together in dribbly “Eastman Color by Pathe” after he’d either pushed for or lucked into VistaVision/Technicolor at Warners with The Searchers — but the black-and-white Columbia releases from the ’50s and ’60s always look pretty marvelous, even in DVD. This Blu-ray is no exception, and for such a clean-cut actor, we see Robertson sweating a lot in high-def, which helps by toughening up his performance.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King of Jazz’ and ‘Underworld U.S.A.’