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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Forty Guns (Blu-ray)
Forty Guns (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // December 11, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted January 9, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller in 1957, Forty Guns (also known under the more salacious title of Woman With A Whip), tells the story of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a tough woman with a penchant for black attire and who cuts quite a figure when she see her atop her white horse. She leads a gang of forty bandits across the desert plains of Arizona, wreaking havoc along the way and causing plenty of trouble for all they cross. She also essentially controls the town of Tombstone.

This is where former gunslinger turned lawman Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) comes in. He and his brother Wes (Gene Barry), also a lawman, and the much younger Chico (Robert Dix) have a problem when Jessica's brother, Brockie (John Ericson), shoots the local Marshal, John Chisum (Hank Worden), and then goes on a bit of a shooting spree. Griff won't stand for this and he wants to see Brockie and the others involved in all of this brought in for their crimes. Jessica, however, is well connected. She's got Sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) in her pocket and leans on him to make sure Brockie walks away.

Things get complicated when Jessica and Griff find they're falling for one another… and then Brockie shoots Wes, leading to the inevitable showdown we all knew was coming.

An atypical western in many ways, Forty Guns loses a bit of focus in the second half and takes some occasional deep dives into melodrama and maudlin sentimentality that hurt what was, by anyone's standard, a very strong first half of the film. This throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the tone of the film, as well as the pacing, but with Fuller being Fuller, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see him trying something different as he does here. If it isn't always one hundred percent successful this is nevertheless a genuinely interesting picture, warts and all.

There are a few qualities that make it worthwhile. First of all, visually this is a VERY good-looking film. The black and white scope cinematography is never short of impressive, Joseph F. Biroc's work in this regard is exceptional, maybe even better than in more established classics like Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte or It's A Wonderful Life. The nighttime scenes in particular, most of which are centered around a stately mansion, have a nice, shadowy, atmosphere to them. The score from Harry Sukman, who also scored The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. for Fuller, is also very solid. And where Fuller's script may meander and voyage into territory where character actions just flat out don't make much sense, his direction in terms of creating some impressive and memorable scenes remains strong. We note this right from the opening scene where Drummond's army of thieves chase down the Bonnell brothers who are in the back of a wagon… very tense stuff. Additionally, Fuler's dialogue is always interesting and occasionally fantastic. There are quite a few double entendres here that are quite amusing (and racier than you'd expect for a film of this vintage) and some wonderfully acidic exchanges between certain characters that we won't spoil here.

Performances are quite strong here as well. Barry Sullivan makes for a fine male lead, he's noble (more or less) and likeable, believably rugged and well-cast as a tough guy. He has good chemistry with supporting players Robert Dix and Gene Barry, both of whom are also quite good in their respective roles. Hank Worden is more than solid as the aged sheriff while, Dean Jagger enjoyable enough as the cop in Drummond's pocket and John Ericson very strong in the part of her psychotic brother. This is, however, Barbara Stanwyck's show through and through. Her work in this picture is, in a word, commanding and her screen presence is a big part of what makes this movie as watchable as it is. She comes close to chewing the scenery a few times but never quite goes that far over the top. Still, her performance here is engaging, determined and energetic. She's excellent in the film, and a joy to watch.

The Video:

Forty Guns comes to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in a 2.35.1 widescreen transfer in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taken from a new 4k scan of the original 35mm negative and the black and white image looks fantastic. Detail is very, very strong and the image is immaculate without looking overly processed. As such, we get a nice, natural amount of film grain but no noticeable print damage to complain about. Contrast looks great, with clean whites, strong blacks and a nice greyscale balancing things out, and the picture offers excellent depth and texture throughout. There are no problems with noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression artifacts to note,

The Audio:

Likewise, the English language LPCM Mono track is also of very good quality. Optional English closed captioning is provided. Dialogue stays clear throughout while the score has more depth to it than you might expect for an older single channel track. The levels are properly balanced and the track is free of any hiss or distortion.

The Extras:

The supplemental package, which is extensive, starts off with a twenty-minute featurette called Fuller Women where Fuller's widow, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller, discus the making of the film and where Sam Fuller was at in his career when he made it. They talk about how he got along with his producer as well as his cast, his love of westerns, the intricacies of the dialogue in the film and more. Women With A Whip is a thirty-five-minute piece that interviews Imogen Sara Smith. Here the author of Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City offers her thoughts on the picture, how it ties into the western boom years and what makes it atypical in the ways that a lot of Fuller's films were.

The best extra is A Fuller Life, which is a feature-length eighty-minute documentary put together by Samantha Fuller that is done by having the likes of James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Joe Dante, Tim Roth, William Friedkin, Monte Hellman, and Wim Wenders read from Fuller's own writing about his life and his work. It's very interesting stuff as each participant brings his own personality to the project which keeps it from ever getting dry. As this plays out we learn quite a bit about his work, his family and the films that he made over the course of his impressive and less than normal career in the film industry.

Also worth digging into is a seventy-eight-minute Q&A session that was recorded at London's National Film Theater in 1968. There's no video here, it's an audio recording, but for Fuller devotees it's an interesting opportunity to hear him speak off the cuff about his work. He covers how he got into the business, how he learned his craft, some of his preferred tools of the trade, his thoughts on the use of violence in film media, some of the specific projects that he was involved in over the years and more.

Finishing up the extra features on the disc are a still gallery, menus and chapter selection. Included inside the keepcase alongside the disc is a full color insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and the disc, notes on the presentation, an essay on the film written by Lisa Dombrowski and a chapter from Fuller's autobiography A Third Face.

Overall:

Forty Guns is not the director's best effort, it gets too maudlin for its own good and at times seems quite unfocused. Still, there are moments where it shines, the cinematography is great and the performances quite fine. There's a lot to appreciate with this effort. The film is definitely worth seeing, especially for fans of the director's work and Criterion's Blu-ray release provides them with the perfect way to do it. The presentation is gorgeous and the extras quite strong. Recommended on the strength of the package and the quirkiness of the feature itself.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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