November 10, 2005
Hell and High Water (1954) was one of 20th Century Fox’s earliest experiments with CinemaScope, widescreen movies that were Hollywood’s attempt to lure people away from their TV sets and back into the theatres by giving them something they couldn’t get staying home. Sam Fuller did such a good job with this format that he used it again on Forty Guns (1957), a hard-hitting western as only he could make.
Right from the opening scene, Fuller presents an impressive, expansive vista: a wide open plain with a lone horse and carriage. There is a sudden, jarring cut to a close-up of many horse hooves thundering across the plain. It is 40 men on horseback being led by landowner Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck), clad all in black. They head straight for the men and their carriage only to go flying past them, surrounding them on all sides with no intention of slowing down. And then they’re gone. Welcome to a Sam Fuller western.
Griff Bonnell (Sullivan) and his brothers arrive in a small, Arizona town. He is a U.S. Marshall looking to arrest Howard Swain, coincidentally one of Drummond’s 40 guns. The town is being terrorized and trashed by Rocky and his boys. He’s an arrogant drunk and bully but when he shoots an old buddy of Griff’s (a man going blind no less), he and his brothers intervene in a bravura scene.
Griff strides purposefully towards the action, unconcerned at the mayhem going on. Rocky’s buddies recognize the lawman and flee but the drunk Rocky doesn’t know or care. Fuller cuts back and forth between a close-up of Griff’s eyes and Rocky’s gun repeatedly until the climax when Griff finally reaches Rocky and punches his lights out. This scene demonstrates how Fuller understood that the power of an action scene lies in how it is edited. The rhythm and pacing is as crucial as the camerawork. Griff and Jessica inevitably cross paths and their relationship starts off as antagonistic but eventually blossoms into a romance.
Even though Forty Guns features all the traditional iconography of a western it contains Fuller’s distinctive, audacious style. For example, early on a cowboy sings a surreal song called, “High Ridin’ Woman” about Drummond. It features such memorable lyrics as “If someone could break her and take her whip away / Someone big, someone strong, someone tall / You may find that the woman with a whip / Is only a woman after all.” This odd song is being sung by a man in the middle of an all-male bathhouse. This gives you an idea of the kind of wild, go-for-broke cinema that is the trademark of Fuller’s oeuvre.
This scene is also a great example of Fuller’s hard-boiled, tabloid-esque prose. Other memorable lines include one of Griff’s brothers, Wes (Barry) speaking admiringly of the town’s beautiful, young blonde gunsmith (Brent) who catches his eye: “I’d like to stay around long enough to clean her rifle.” Or one of their exchanges once they finally cross paths and flirt. “I never kissed a gunsmith before, “ Wes says. “Any recoil?” she replies. It seems laughably dated by today’s standards but that is part of the charm of Fuller’s dialogue.
Fuller uses every opportunity to show off the widescreen format while employing extensive use of close-ups and one of the longest tracking shots ever done at Fox’s studio at that time. Forty Guns is one of the most dynamic westerns ever made and this is due to Fuller’s infectious energy as reflected in his pulpy prose and kinetic camerawork. It’s not enough to say that they don’t make westerns like this anymore – they just don’t make movies like this anymore.
An exciting, vintage trailer.