Forty Guns (1957)

When it’s on: Monday, 11 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘May I feel it?’
‘Uh-uh.’
‘Just curious.’
‘It might go off in your face.’
‘I’ll take a chance.’

One of the aspects of the Westerm I find most fascinating is its dying days, the realisation that American expansion has caught up with the untamed frontier, making its ways approach their ending. This is a theme of Forty Guns I really like. Both its hero, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), and rancher Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), have long histories, complicated back stories, and know the elements that have defined their lives are drawing to a close. They’re becoming anachronisms, and their riding off in the direction of California together at the end is symbolic of the dawning new chapter in Arizona’s own tale.

But this is only one aspect of Forty Guns, a film I found very hard to pigeonhole into any single theme. That might suggest a bit of a mess, but it’s anything but, director Samuel Fuller shoehorning just about every trick available into a piece that runs under eighty minutes in length and feels gloriously longer. It’s funny. The slice of dialogue quoted above is one instance of the film’s bawdy sense of humour, transforming a conversation between ex-shooter Bonnell and Jessica about his gunmanship into something quite different and, for the time, close to the bone.

It’s also beautifully filmed. The opening, pre-credits sequence is breathtaking, three men driving a wagon slowly across the plain and then abruptly a large posse of cowboys surround them and ride past, led by Stanwyck’s character. Fuller shoots the moment from all sorts of angles – beneath the wagon, at the riders’ height, from a bird’s eye perspective – dragging entirely the sense of confusion and menace from the scene as well as focusing on the wagon’s screaming, terrified horses. The meaning is obvious. This is her land and the men on the wagon had better know it. And it’s only the most celebrated from a number of inventively shot sequences. I love this bit, surely ripped off in various Bond flicks, where Bonnell’s brother Wes (Gene Barry) sparks off his own romantic liaison with the town’s pretty gunsmith (Eve Brent) when he stares at her through the barrel of a rifle:

Given the short running time, the film isn’t given space to offer too much exposition about its characters and does the work through action instead, which is always better. We realise Bonnell is badass early, when Jessica’s out of control brother Brockie (John Ericson) kills the marshall just for drunken kicks and then starts tearing up the town. Bonnell marches up the street to stop him, even though Brockie’s holding a loaded gun, and they can tell from the way he’s walking (it’s a sequence that seems to take much longer than it realistically could), the cold resolve in his eyes, that he’s been there and dealt with much bigger men many times. It’s so assured that Bonnell is able to walk right up to Brockie and pistol whip him, ending the disorder.

But because he’s Jessica’s brother, she has to use her influence to get him released and that brings her into the orbit of Bonnell, who’s soon sparking a romantic relationship with her. Again, it’s clear that he must be some man to exert any sort of desire. The ‘forty guns’ of the title refer to Jessica’s personal army of ranch hands. Bonnell arrives at her house, a palatial pile that was modelled on Tara from Gone with the Wind, to arrest one of her men and finds them all sitting at the dinner table, immaculately dressed with Jessica naturally at the head, which emphasises her power. His arrest warrant is duly passed along the table, a long tracking shot that sees each man glimpsing at the name on the paper before Jessica gets it and reacts, every inch the queen bee.

Stanwyck, 49 when Forty Guns was made, fits the part beautifully as the middle-aged yet still beautiful and commanding Jessica. It was a role coveted by Marilyn Monroe, though it’s hard to imagine anyone but Stanwyck owning it so effectively. Despite her years and fame, she was unafraid to get her hands dirty, volunteering over the stunt performers to act the scene where Jessica is dragged along the ground by her horse during a tornado storm. It’s another great moment, the storm violent and brutal, narratively developing the romance that grows between her and Bonnell as they shelter from the winds in an abandoned building.

The block to a happy ending comes ultimately in the shape of Brockie, too hot headed to handle and nicely juxtaposed with Bonnell’ kid brother, Chico (Robert Dix), who similarly wants in on the action despite his better wishes. Brockie’s increasingly erratic actions lead to tragedy and then the final showdown, a superb climax that shows entirely the justice meted out by Bonnell when he’s ultimately driven to act violently.

I’ve read that Forty Guns is a veiled riff on the Wyatt Earp legend, and perhaps that’s there, but I’m not certain I’ve ever seen it told so winningly. I can only imagine the number of renowned Western directors who watched it and realised the game had suddenly been upped within their genre. There’s a cavalcade of minor characters, all in some way corrupted by the town and its imbalance of power, and the presence of Bonnell to set things straight. Stanwyck’s character was originally intended to die at the end but instead enjoyed a happy finale, and I’m glad about that. Corrupt she may be, but there’s also hope and the note of optimism that closes the film gentles its bittersweet denouement.

As highlighted on Riding the High Country, Forty Guns is due for a release on Blu Ray shortly to take full advantage of its expansive Cinemascope filming. It’s definitely on my list; its influence can be felt on the work of, amongst others, Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom held deep respect for Fuller’s masterly camera work and economical storytelling. For one things, it’s impossible to picture Leone filming the classically wordless opening sequences to his Westerns so confidently without the marker set by Forty Guns.

Forty Guns: ****

Double Indemnity (1944)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 20 January (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, I had a job that didn’t involve a lot of work and allowed much time for meaningless surfing of the web, which at the time was a fairly recent novelty. Whilst AltaVista-ing for movie sites, I came across a page that promised to explain the tropes of Film Noir. Innovatively, you could read the comments by clicking on certain items held within a single shot; the still was naturally from Double Indemnity, and if you clicked, say, on Barbara Stanwyck, you would then open a new page entitled Molls, and there were further descriptions on lighting, smoking, suits, and so on. The point is that Double Indemnity was the obvious choice for the site’s portal. If not the first Film Noir, it’s almost certainly its ultimate expression, the quintessential Noir picture. It’s a happy collision of talents who would go on to be names synonymous with the Noir style, and in my eyes it’s about as close to perfection as cinema gets.

The list of credits alone is a roll-call of the great and good. Director Billy Wilder was an Austrian emigré, leaving Vienna when Hitler came to power and realising his Jewish ancestry would cause him problems as the Nazi influence spread. Better known in the German speaking world as a screenwriter, Wilder directed one feature in France before moving to America; Double Indemnity was his third directorial effort in the States, and whilst he had a hand in the script he found his grip on English would be an impediment and hired Raymond Chandler to work alongside him on it. The two men hated each other, but Wilder encouraged the working relationship, thinking the antipathy would make for a screenplay crackling in tension. For Chandler, already a noted crime writer with The Big Sleep bringing him to Wilder’s notice, there was little love for the source material, the short novel written by James M Cain in 1936, and he updated much of the dialogue to his own, whiplash exchanges between the characters.

Wilder hired Hungarian composer, Miklos Rozsa, for the soundtrack. Better known later in his career for scoring some of epic cinema’s biggest hits, this was an early credit in his Hollywood body of work (his first was for Wilder’s previous film, Five Graves to Cairo) and for it, he was Oscar nominated. Rozsa claimed he wrote the score as though for a love story, increasing the mood of doomed melodrama that soaks the film, whilst the trembling strings that accompany the flashbacks ramp up the tension.

Just as important to the production was regular Wilder collaborator, cinematographer John Seitz, who for Double Indemnity helped to establish the atmospheric lighting that would become a hallmark of Film Noir. For a film of such dark subject matter, the screen is often suffused in darkness, using night-for-night filming to marvellous effect. Even more iconic is the ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting, star Fred MacMurray often filmed against blinds to give the impression he’s already behind bars whilst plotting ‘the perfect crime’.

Lead actress Stanwyck was the first and only choice for Phyllis Dietrichson, the scheming wife who arranges a double indemnity insurance policy on her husband’s life that will net her a windfall if he dies. The best known female actor in Hollywood at the time, Stanwyck was unsure about taking the role initially as she normally portrayed heroines, which this part most certainly was not. However she accepted, and was duly given a blonde wig and anklet to wear throughout the film, heightening her character’s essential trashiness. Opposite her was MacMurray as the doomed insurance broker, Walter Neff. MacMurray was cast at the end of a long list of auditions and considerations, and like Stanwyck was playing against type whilst similarly putting in a brilliant performance. The film is framed by Neff’s lengthy confession to his manager, Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). Speaking into a dictaphone, Neff’s story leads to a series of flashbacks, his description of meeting Phyllis, arranging the policy and simultaneously falling for her, helping to concoct a plan that takes in the murder of her husband before claiming the money and riding off into the sunset together. Or so he believes that’s what’s going to happen. In reality, he learns that Phyllis isn’t as devoted a partner as she made out, and that there’s a strong possibility he’s been played all along. Worse still, as Neff begins telling his tale it’s clear he’s in pain, possibly terminally, which means the ‘perfect crime’ he’s describing will, at some point, go horribly wrong.

The biggest hitch in the lovers’ plan is none other than Keyes himself. A bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out cases of insurance fraud, Keyes is assiduous and Neff knows he will need their scheme to run perfectly in order for them to get away with it. It’s possible all will go well, but only if the execution is meticulous. Neff knows the key is to give Barton no hint that anything is awry, and he very nearly manages it, and apart from the issue of the money there’s his friendship with Keyes to consider. The two men are on fine terms and Neff sees this as vital in minimising the sense of suspicion. Then again, Keyes is the Sherlock Holmes of the insurance world; as he at first seems to see the death of Phyllis’s husband as a fluke, one of those things that will end in a big payout, his ‘little man’ is troubling him, and the slow realisation that something’s rotten and the uncovering of Neff and Phyllis’s plot is deliciously suspenseful, really agonising and inevitable. Robinson was also taking on a unusual role for himself, but his is a smart and measured turn, and it’s heartbreaking to see the complete lack of pleasure he takes in exposing Neff, such is his affection for the younger man.

Double Indemnity is an exercise in tightening tension, wonderfully realised, from the wounded Neff relating his story through to the almost completely successful crime being steadily unpicked. It’s one of those few titles that I dust off on a fairly regular basis for another viewing, and each time I’m gripped by something new. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Double Indemnity: *****