[box cover]

Forty Guns

The late, great Sam Fuller made this freaky-good, noir-tinged western at the height of his powers in 1957, and it offers all the sexually charged, darkly simmering goodness that you'd expect — the sort of stuff that westerns usually don't go in for. The Bonnell brothers, led by federal marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), come to Cochise County, Ariz., in search of a robber on the run. But the land is ruled by tough-as-nails Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), who counts forty hired shooters (the "forty guns" of the title) as her personal army. Along with brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), Griff decides to stick around and bring real law and order back to the county. Despite an obvious sexual attraction between Griff and Jessica — her theme song, incongruously sung by one of the local cowpokes, describes Jessica as "A high ridin' woman with a whip / A woman that all men desire" — it goes on to explain that if some man were big enough and strong enough to take her whip away, well then… you know. Macho Griff is tall enough and strong enough and could take that whip away, but he falls for somebody else and instead sets to taming Jessica's no-good brother Brockie (John Erickson). Both of these turns peeve Jessica mightily — and in classic noir fashion, everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Rejected by American audiences on its release, Forty Guns was embraced in Europe, where audiences loved the shadowy cinematography and over-the-top, Freudian imagery — there is much stroking of hat brims and polishing of gun barrels in this film, and the entire Jessica/Griff/Brockie triangle seethes with brother-sister love, repressed lust, and intimacy issues. The film may have been directly influenced by another classic noir western, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar three years later, with a similarly strong-willed matriarch and evil brother at its center. Fox's DVD release of Forty Guns is marvelous — the anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is clean and crisp with beautiful contrast. Viewers who have never seen this film in any other fashion than pan-and-scan on TV now have the opportunity to enjoy Fuller's use of the CinemaScope lens (the pan-and-scan version is available on the flip side, but it's an inferior transfer from a soft, grainy source). The Dolby Digital 4.0 audio also is remarkably clear and impressive, particularly in moments like the film's opening, during which Stanwyck leads her forty gunmen across the plains on thundering horseback. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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