Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is one tough lady. She’s an Arizona rancher who rules her county with an authoritarian presence and a gang of gun-toting cowboys to back her up. Her brothers freely terrorize the town with her blessing. She rides through the hills dressed completely in black, striking fear in the hearts of anyone who would dare oppose her.
When Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) comes to town looking to make arrests, Jessica finds herself falling for the man, who is her antithesis: a completely non-violent champion of justice.
But Griff’s after one of those gun-toting cowboys that Jessica relies so greatly on to keep control of the county, and the threat of losing all of her power may be more important to her than protecting a budding romance.
Samuel Fuller (The Naked Kiss) directed and wrote 1957’s psychological Western, Forty Guns. Though largely ignored by critics and audiences upon release and in some cases even condemned for its violence, the film is now regarded as one of Stanwyck’s best Westerns by many of her fans, and Samuel Fuller’s work has inspired modern directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
According to Robert Osborne’s introduction to this film on TCM, it was originally titled Woman with a Whip. A song of the same title with the lyrics of “She’s a hiiiiigh ridin’ woman with a whip” still appears in the film. Osborne’s introduction also mentions that Stanwyck was 49 years old when she filmed Forty Guns, but that did nothing to stop her from doing her own stunts.
Forty Guns is an incredibly unique Western. The camera work is nothing like you’d expect from the genre, full off odd angles and distortions. Some of the photography is even noir-ish, with clever use of lighting in crisp black and white. There’s a ton of visual appeal to the film. DP Joseph F. Biroc, whose 150+ credits are as diverse as It’s a Wonderful Life and The Longest Yard, must be given major props for his work here.
Visual beauty aside, this film also very high on watchability. There’s plenty of action to keep the viewer occupied, from gun battles to horse stampedes to duels. It’s all of the violent “fun” of the good ol’ West, complete with holsters, leather vests and cowboy hats.
If action doesn’t strike your fancy, the dialogue of the film is just as great, peppered with double entendres and snark.
The performances are also very good. Stanwyck is absolutely wonderful as usual. I can’t rave about her enough. She’s quite well-matched by the somewhat less-remembered talent of Barry Sullivan, but she’s definitely the film’s greatest asset. Her character’s journey is an interesting one, blending a little bit of psychological intrigue into the “cowboys vs. lawmen vs. love” plot, and she handles it very well.
While it’s certainly worth watching for the cinematography and for Stanwyck alone, I can find few faults in Forty Guns, giving even more reason for me to recommend it. I didn’t expect to like this film, and in fact left it sitting on my DVR for months because I was so hesitant to watch it (along with a couple of Stanwyck’s other Westerns). It surprised me in the best way. The score: 4.5/5