By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Samuel Fuller's finest Western takes more than a few cues from Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" (1954), notably its heavy Freudian symbolism and its strong central female matriarch (Joan Crawford in "Johnny Guitar" and Barbara Stanwyck in "Forty Guns"). Rancher Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck) commands a loyal crew of forty men but has a soft spot for her trouble-making brother Brock (John Ericson). When Brock shoots the town sheriff in cold blood, she bails him out, but inadvertently starts a war.
Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) is the tough ex-marshal who falls for Jessica and causes all the trouble. Fuller constantly equates guns with phalluses and evokes manly images whenever possible. In one scene, a man actually strokes the handle of a gun while eyeballing the beautiful female gunsmith. In one of the film's best scenes, Jessica makes her forty hands get up from the table and leave the room so that she can have a word alone with Griff. The huge table and Fuller's clever framing give Jessica a strong masculine power.
Storywise, the film moves along in nervy fits and starts, and it's sometimes difficult to tell the generic supporting actors apart. But Stanwyck is as stunning and fiery as she was all the way back in "Baby Face" (1933), and she helps make this one of the best Westerns of its day.
**** out of ****
(79m | NR)
I'd seen "Forty Guns" a couple of times in a pan-and-scan version on a VHS tape provided to me by a friend in the video business. But of course, Fuller used the Cinemascope frame to its maximum extreme, and the pan-and-scan version is virtually useless. Letterboxed or on the big screen is the only real way to see it. Just check out the thundering opening scene as Jessica and her forty thieves ride around a slow buckboard on a trail outside of town. Now thanks to Optimum Releasing's DVD (Region 2, PAL), which I found on Xploited Cinema.com, I was able to see it as intended. The picture has bold blacks and clear lines, but the contrast is a bit blotchy. The disc is otherwise pretty sparse, and only comes with three trailers from the same company ("Breathless," "Moby Dick" and "Wages of Fear"). It's highly recommended, regardless.
2.35:1 ratio (16x9 enhanced)