Forty Guns. It is truly odd, weird, bizarre, unintentionally funny at times, surprisingly dark and cynical at others, and in spots, really, really entertaining. And at 79 minutes, it packs more into its short running time than movies that are much, much longer. What an odd mess of a movie.
A federal peace officer with a well-known reputation, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) rides into Cochise County, Arizona with his two brothers, experienced gunhand, Wes (Gene Barry), and inexperienced but motivated Chico (Robert Dix). Griff is holding an arrest warrant on a cowboy accused of robbing a mail stagecoach, and then he finds out the man is working for Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a cattle queen in the area who has money, power and the guns -- some 40 gunslingers -- to back her up. The arrest warrant is just the start of problems as Jessica's younger brother, Brockie (John Ericson), doesn't like Griff's arrival and intends to do something about it.
Nothing too out of the ordinary for a western, is it? I didn't think so reading the plot description over at Netflix. From director Sam Fuller (who also wrote and produced), 'Forty' is just a mess of a movie. The positives are great, showing that at some point there was a chance this could have been a good to great western. The negatives though are epic, bordering on movie-killers. Some of the positives? It is a beautiful black and white movie, the camera work impressive, featuring long tracking shots, plenty of interesting angles, and basically a feeling of seeing something different. It is also surprisingly brutal and in its message. As far as westerns went in the 1950s, this is far ahead of its time, especially considering the cynicism that developed in 1960s westerns.
Besides Stanwyck in the lead, I didn't recognize much of the cast by name alone, but that ends up being a good thing. The Bonnells -- a thinly veiled take on the Earp brothers -- are great leads, especially Sullivan and Barry. Griff is the sure-handed lawman, so confident in his ability that he hasn't had to fire his gun in almost 10 years. Wes is his right-hand man, always backing him up like a guardian angel hovering over the situation. Chico wants to be like his brothers having seen the "glory" and "romance" of being a gunslinger. Stanwyck too is a bright spot, playing a strong female character, something that is lacking in so many westerns. She's no damsel in distress for sure, even doing her own stunt as she's dragged by her horse. Both the Bonnells and the Drummond characters are strong characters, able to carry a movie on their own. Instead of that, we get a jam-packed, even rushed 79 minute movie.
For all the positives, there's just too much going on for 'Forty' to be truly effective. Another 30 minutes would have been perfect to flesh things out. Barry's Wes is wasted in what was potentially a very cool character, "wooing" gunsmith's daughter, Louvenia (Eve Brent), and disappearing for long stretches of a short movie. Dean Jagger appears as necessary as corrupt and bought Sheriff Ned Logan, a possibly interesting backstory kept in the shadows. Oh, and did I mention that Stanwyck and Sullivan have a tortured love affair, two strong-willed individuals falling for each other for all the wrong reasons? Yeah, that's sort of a major plot, but like anything and everything else.....yeah, you guessed it. Rushed.
Rushed is one thing because it at least implies some sort of wasted potential. It was there, just never taken advantage of. On the other hand, there's just some badness. Ericson's terribly hammy performance as Brockie is so ridiculous it comes across as laughable. Some not so subtle sexual references -- a gun "going off in a woman's face" or "caring for one's gun with care and daily attention" -- are so heavy-handed they're hilarious in their badness.
A lot of these issues I had were almost thrown by the wayside in the finale, Sullivan's Griff delivering a truly surprising, brutal surprise, especially considering this was made in 1957. It's a mess of a movie overall -- both really good and epically bad -- but there's just enough....jjjjjjjjjjust....to recommend this one.
Forty Guns <---Youtube clip (1957): ** 1/2 /****