A Fuller Image
Nick Pinkerton on Forty Guns

We hardly notice when the 2.35: 1 widescreen format is being used these days, so ubiquitous is it, and so regularly is it employed without any apparent purpose—think of the countless close-up-heavy dramas where head-shot busts are flanked by inactive swathes of useless screen real-estate. Difficult as it is to believe, though, there was a time when people making widescreen movies were actively aware of the fact that they were making widescreen movies, if only by virtue of the process’ novelty. When CinemaScope first flung open the wings of the film frame, there were directors who took it for an opportunity, and one of the indisputable dynamos of this period was Sam Fuller.

Before Forty Guns, Fuller was already something of an old hand with widescreen. In his posthumously published autobiography, A Third Face, Fuller reported acquiring a CinemaScope lens from the inventor of the process, Henri Chrétien, and shooting test footage with his 16mm camera before starting on his first ’Scope venture, 1954’s Hell and High Water, which perversely was confined mostly to the interior of a submarine. This was followed by 1955’s House of Bamboo (whose horizontal compositions Fuller claimed were inspired by Japanese screen art) and 1957’s China Gate.

Like China Gate, Fuller’s next production was also in black-and-white CinemaScope, also shot by the estimable Joseph F. Biroc (also Robert Aldrich’s go-to guy.) There is, I don’t know why, something intrinsically tawdry about black-and-white widescreen—maybe the unique ability to seem simultaneously lavish and cheap. And while almost the standard in Japanese ’Scope knockoffs of the same period (TohoScope, ToeiScope, Daeiscope, Nikkatsu Scope), it is something of a rarity in American movies, though the exceptions constitute a memorable bunch: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels; Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory; Martin Ritt’s Hud, with DP James Wong Howe’s crisp Texas nights; and a number of Otto Preminger’s films, used as a natural extension of his scrolling proscenium staging after he discovered the process in his one-off Western, River of No Return. (The wider screen lent itself naturally to the vistas of the West—you can see Henry Farny, the Franco-American painter who specialized in the life of the west, working frequently in this unusual canvas shape in the 1870s, a lead then followed by Frederic Remington.)

There were also a whole host of Twentieth Century Fox films shot in “Regalscope”, the assignation given to the studio’s “B” productions in black-and-white widescreen, frequently Westerns, with titles such as The Black Whip or The Desperados Are in Town. Fuller’s pulpy, sex-on-the-brain oater Forty Guns belongs to this group in spirit, if not in budget. Like Anthony Mann’s contemporary works with Jimmy Stewart, it might be called a psychological Western but, given Fuller’s brazen vulgarity, the difference in the psychology in question is the difference between Freud and a Tijuana Bible.

Forty Guns is the second of two radically unorthodox Westerns that Fuller made in 1957, following the proto¬–Dances with Wolves Rod Steiger vehicle Run of the Arrow (in Technicolor RKO-Scope), about a disillusioned Confederate veteran fleeing the preserved Union for membership in the Sioux Nation. Where Run of the Arrow put the American Indian center-screen, Forty Guns is the rare movie—in the esteemed company of Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, Ray’s Johnny Guitar, and Mann’s The Furies—where the Western woman rides tall in the saddle. Fuller, who played the salty old cuss to the hilt, was prone in later life to giving such advice as “Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them!” Forty Guns begins, aptly, with a stampede of action, an avalanche of horses pummeling across the prairie, led on a white stallion by Barbara Stanwyck, wearing black Zorro getup.

Stanwyck is cattle queen Jessica Drummond, who runs Cochise County, Arizona, with her forty hired hands. Retired gunslinger Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his brothers, Wes and Chico (Gene Barry and Robert Dix), bounce into this gynocentric scene on a buckboard, to serve a warrant on one of Jessica’s men, just in time to see her kid brother, Brockie (John Ericson), raising hell. After Griff wrangles Brockie, Jessica wines and dines this tall, lean stranger, hoping to add him to her payroll—with implicit extra compensation thrown in. In A Third Face, Fuller explained his premise, with trademark candor: “My forty guns were forty pricks. My powerful heroine had her way in the sack with all forty, then cast them aside for the forty-first ‘gun,’ Griff.” We can tell that Griff’s more of a man than most of the scrubs around Cochise when he marches right up Main Street to an out-of-control, armed Brockie, hypnotizing the kid with a cold stare-down before pistol-whipping him into the dust, Sullivan’s eye-line filling the whole screen in a fashion that would later be associated with Sergio Leone and Eastwood in their Man-with-no-Name collaborations.

Speaking of p-whipping: this time-honored tale of a woman’s transition from dom to sub has as its theme “Lady with a Whip,” sung by butter-voiced bathhouse (!) proprietor Jidge Carroll (“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”). Elsewhere, the dirty double entendres are so blatant that the conflation of sex and violence can hardly be called a subtext. Wes comes calling on apprentice gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent): “She’s quite a girl. I’d like to stay around long enough to clean her rifle.” Jessica and Griff, meanwhile, pitch woo in the same language: “I’m not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell; it’s your trademark. May I feel it?” “Uh-uh” “Just curious…” “It might go off in your face.” The famous you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine pistol-comparison between Monty Clift and John Ireland in Red River seems innocuous by comparison.

All of this reads as pretty puerile, but it’s worth noting that Fuller goes against the predominant Hollywood practice of equating sexual power to a fresh face (this is true now even more than then). If never one of Hollywood’s stop-in-your-tracks beauties, Stanwyck had an ineffable sexual presence on screen. Shot for Capra by cinematographer Joseph Walker—who used to customize lenses to flatter leading ladies—in, say, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Stanwyck is tactilely aphrodisiac, hits you right in your lap. In Forty Guns, Stanwyck is on the way out of movie acting—the television box was more forgiving—fifty years old and not looking a day younger, a little stoat-like with her curled lips, the hardness of her wave just offset by the purr in her throat.

Sullivan’s a battered-looking forty-five himself, and the scenes between he and Stanwyck have a mellow, smirking intimacy—it never once occurs to Fuller to think anything’s remarkable about middle-age people desiring a fuck. Sex, like physical force, is something you have to grow into and get a hold of. Griff and Jessica have; puffy, tortured punk Brockie hasn’t, and litters the territory with bodies and illegitimate offspring.

The film’s episodes of violence are as sudden and lacerating as Fuller’s opening, breaking across the screen like the freak, apocalyptic tornado that surprises Jessica and Griff out in the plains. This is a movie that doesn’t do anything by half measures: when Jessica rides, it’s always with her whole army. And the movie’s final showdown is a legend of unflinching cruelty, Brockie hiding himself from Griff, using his own big sister as a human shield. Fuller’s original ending left both of the Drummonds dead, but it’s difficult to object to the compromise: two hard-cases like Griff and Jessica deserve each other.

Forty Guns showed February 19 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of Reverse Shot's See It Big series.