Saturday, May 26, 2018

Forty Guns

Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957) The opening to Sam Fuller's Forty Guns is typical of the director's way of giving his films a "thesis statement", or as he himself put it "if you're going to make a movie, the opening oughta give ya a hard-on!"

Well, that may not literally be true (although Fuller isn't too subtle about the phallic imagery of guns...and the women and men who handle them in the film), but there is a lot of dynamism in that opening sequence, even if nothing much actually happens in it.

Other than to tell are watching a Sam Fuller movie!

The first shot is vast and empty, with a tiny wagon in the lower quadrant of the shot, in an instant showing you the isolation of the West and the vast distances one has to travel to get anything done in this world. 

Inside the wagon are the Bonell boys on their way to the town of Tombstone (aren't we all?) on business: youngest brother Chico (Robert Dix) is going to board the stage at Tombstone to California, where, reluctantly it seems, will start a life of farming; oldest brother Griff (Barry Sullivan) is a former gunslinger, now working for the Attorney General's office, heading to Tombstone to arrest Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson) for mail robbery; mid-son Wes (Gene Barry) is riding along as Griff's "second gun"—always at the ready if Griff needs an extra gun protecting his back.
Just then, a veritable posse of forty one riders on horses descends from the hills and heads right for them on the same road, then splitting up, galloping on either side of the stilled wagon, its horses spooking from the challenge of so much momentum heading in their direction. Now, you'd think with all that space that such a collision would be nearly impossible to happen. But, that's part of Fuller's point—the land is vast, but seems to narrow dangerously once people get involved...especially people who always think they have the right of way.
Leading the pack by several lengths is a white horse ridden by a woman, Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), and the missed altercation in the middle of nowhere speaks volumes about the character: daughter of one of the territory's great landowners, she has taken control of the ranch and wields a great deal of power of the county and the town. Her beloved brother Brockie (John Ericson) is a bit of a loose cannon and he and Swain are part of Drummond's outfit of forty gunmen who act as her ranch-hands, enforcers, and spies. She also has her thumb on Tombstone sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger), no doubt hand-picked by Drummond to keep control over the town and free sway to her men. 
But, the balance of power shifts a bit when the Bonnell brothers come to town; when Brockie Drummond drunkenly challenges Marshall John Chisum (John Ford favorite Hank Worden) and cripples him with a shot to the leg (then proceeds to terrorize the town) Griff walks down Main Street to challenge Brockie—with brother Wes backing him up, strategically drawing a bead on the miscreant from a gunsmith shop window. As the town-folks scatter, Griff walks without hesitation and with a straight path to the drunken Drummond looking him in eyes before he takes his unceremoniously takes out his gun and cold-cocks him knocking him unconscious.
That's an "out there" sequence, risible, especially when someone recognizes Griff because "nobody walks like that," but there is a power to it because Fuller cuts between a track-in shot of Brockie awaiting his fate and the tight close-up of Griff's eyes staring him down as he moves toward him. The thought immediately comes to mind: "Oh, so that's where Sergio Leone got the idea..."
Griff's clocking of Brockie sets up a new dynamic in town. The kid is jailed, but the Drummond lawyer fast-tracks his release and the judge is a Drummond lackey, too. But Jessica is appreciative of the fact that Griff didn't just shoot her brother and be done with it. Truth is, Griff hasn't had to kill anybody in ten years and he'd just as soon keep that streak going. When Griff shows up at the Drummond spread (during formal dinner) and arrests Swain, Jessica doesn't put up much of a fuss. In fact, she offers Griff a job ("I need a strong man to carry out my orders," she says—"And a weak man to take them," counters Griff) which he refuses. Still, the two are taken with each other, despite the opposing circumstances.
Curio in a gunbarrell:
Wes sets his sights on Louvenia
Wes has his own interests. His earlier impromptu post at the gunsmith's has put him in the sights of the gunsmith's daughter Louvenia (Eve Brent)—who is actually more of the master craftsman than her father—and he decides he might want to settle down in Tombstone and become the marshal, replacing the crippled Chisum. But, the arrest of Swain, Brockie's inherent squirrelliness, makes the town a dangerous place for the Bonnell boys, just for being associated with Big Brother Griff.
But, even the bad guys, though slow to see a shift in power, realize that things might be changing and their sway over Tombstone might be coming to end—the easy way that Jessica turns Swain over to Griff, for instance (she doesn't want the controversy or the association with a mail-robber), how she dismisses everyone from her dinner table to speak with the agent alone. The weak man who has been taking orders from Drummond, Sheriff Logan, decides to take matters into his own hands.
Power-dynamic in conversation by Sam Fuller in 2-D:
Logan talks to Jessica, blocking her view of Griff,
but Fuller has them looking right at each other.
Logan sets up the killing of Swain (in jail—a neat trick) and an ambush of Griff Bonnell in a back-street (very few of those) in Tombstone to both throw suspicion off Jessica and keep Griff from doing any more damage. But, there's something more to it, too. Logan is such a conniving little milksop (and Jagger doesn't quite pull off the complexities of the character—perhaps, like Stanwyck and Sullivan, he shouldn't have tried and let the text do the heavy lifting informing their performances, lest it descend into camp), perhaps he's thinking he's also removing a romantic rival, a notion that, like all of his plans, are a bit half-baked.
Power dynamic by Sam Fuller in 3-D:
Griff about to be ambushed by the fellow in the window...if he steps forward
And any romance between Griff and Jessica wouldn't be half-baked, but a slow-burn. Their relationship is contentious but respectful at arm's length with the sort of barbed back-and-forth that Stanwyck has been perfecting since Baby Face and made an art of in Double Indemnity (this even has a variant of "I wonder if you wonder"—"I'm sure you're sure.") 

"You look upset." "I was BORN upset."

"I was bit by a rattlesnake here when I was 15." "Did the rattlesnake die?" 

For two other righteous individuals them would be fightin' words (or you would at least smile when you say that), but it seems to have fan the flames of love out in the desert. But, what seals the deal is Griff saving Jessica from being dragged by a horse in the middle of a tornado.

You read that right—being dragged by a horse in the middle of tornado.
Forty Guns does not compromise, takes chances, and constantly jumps the fence in the corral of the usual western fair, even while it celebrates the genre's past and, especially in the films of Sergio Leone, anticipates its future.

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