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Blu-ray Review: 3 Women

4.0

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3 Women

Iconoclastic director Robert Altman’s dream project 3 Women was precisely that: Altman always claimed the film’s title, lead actresses, and theme of identity theft came to him in a dream. Accordingly, 3 Women is awash with aquatic imagery that signifies the royal road to the vast reservoir of the unconscious, from its opening high-angle shot of an extremely pregnant woman, Willie Hart (Janice Rule), limning an empty swimming pool with an eerie snake-woman mural, seen through the filter of an intervening aquarium, to the hot springs at the rehab center where the other two titular women, Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), work, and a heady dream sequence late in the film that’s framed through a titling, sloshing wave machine.

Just as the freeform, free-associational dream provides 3 Women with a formal design, the ever shifting and blurring boundaries of identity becomes its archetypal theme, evinced by the film’s enigmatic tagline: “1 woman became 2. 2 women became 3. 3 women became 1.” Identity, the film asserts, is always a work in progress: One need not be a card-carrying Lacanian to note the frequent mirror staging, doubling, and tripling the women’s figures in reflection. As if this weren’t indication enough, the always generous Altman throws in a set of twins, whose standoffish and uncanny self-containment makes them targets of dislike from their co-workers at the spa, and prompts Pinky’s not-so-innocent query, “Wonder if they ever forget which one they are?”

Altman has always placed greater value on fluid camera movement than precision framing, and has expressed his lack of patience when it comes to aesthetically “pretty” lighting schemes, preferring to shoot with available light. His trademark directorial techniques, unhurried zooms and pans that investigate confined spaces with an intimacy that turns the viewer into a Peeping Tom, are on display from the start: The camera moves circumspectly around the interior of the Desert Spring Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, picks out Millie at work, guiding elderly patients through their water aerobics routine, before lighting on Pinky, walled-off behind glass like a sea creature on display, soaking up her new habitat.

With the freshly scrubbed sensibility of a newborn babe, Pinky is all input, taking her cues from what she observes, and the pattern she chooses to cut the cloth of her identity from is Millie, who’s assigned to show her the ropes. Soon enough, they’re rooming together at the Purple Sage Apts., where Pinky can take her emulation of all things Millie to the next level. Thing is, Millie herself is a readymade assemblage, a yawning void stuffed to the brim with supposedly perfect details of trendy cuisine and modish fashion culled from magazines and mail-order catalogues. Oblivious to a fault, Millie is completely unaware that everyone around her actively dislikes her, deriding her as “Thoroughly Modern” Millie, all the while she doles out nuggets of secondhand wisdom and attempts to interest all and sundry in the pettiest details of her vacuous existence. In his commentary track, Altman notes that Duvall came up with the bulk of her character’s dialogue, food recipes, and diary entries, in keeping with the collaborative, improvisatory style of filmmaking he preferred.

After work, Millie takes Pinky to Dodge City, a rundown watering hole with a dirt bike track and firing range out back for the menfolk, run by mother-to-be Willie and her man, Edgar (Robert Fortier), a career stunt double and all-around macho type. Dodge City is a compendium of outmoded roadside attractions, a chimerical simulacrum of the Old West, where gun-totin’ hombres (in this case, law-enforcement types) gather to prove and reprove their mettle. Consigned to their fringes by her femininity, Willie haunts the corners of the establishment, hanging her gunshot-riddled sand paintings on the walls, and decorating the adjacent empty pool with murals depicting sexual monsters (per Altman), scaly serpentine women and naked men, their raised knives and dangling penises alike sources of menace.

Midway through the film, rejected by Millie in favor of a fling with Edgar, Pinky attempts suicide by throwing herself into the Purple Sage’s swimming pool, a leap of unfaith that puts her in a coma. Playing up the baptismal death-and-rebirth metaphor, by the time Pinky emerges from the coma, she’s a new woman. Trouble is, she’s Millie: She dresses like Millie, acts like Millie, even composes new entries in Millie’s diary. When Millie brings her parents to her hospital room (played by real-life married couple Ruth Nelson and John Cromwell, the blacklisted director of the noir classic Caged), Pinky denies them, sending them away in befuddlement. No longer the childlike naïf, she’s now a full-grown woman, stealing Edgar away from Millie. It’s a tribute to Spacek’s protean versatility that she marks these radical behavioral shifts with seeming ease.

But the personality-grab comes to a grinding halt after Pinky has a bizarre, symbol-saturated dream, seeing herself soaked in blood and threatened by figures from Willie’s paintings. Reverting to the intermediate persona of a nymphet (half child, half woman), Pinky seeks solace from Millie, whose own maternal instinct is on the upswing. When a drunken Edgar stumbles in on them, informs them that Willie is having her baby, they rush off to assist. The act of childbirth, yielding a stillborn baby boy, is the pivot around which the final realignment of the dramatis personae hinges: Willie takes on a grandmotherly aspect, while Millie bursts into full-fledged maternity, assuming the mantle of Willie’s flowing garb, with a once-again girlish Pinky snapping her gum and reluctantly going about her chores.

It isn’t much of a stretch to see here Robert Graves’s famous Triple Goddess: crone, mother, and maiden. But it’s given an ominous edge by the suggestion that Edgar’s been killed in a mysterious firearm-related accident, as well as the final, ponderous pan across the Hart property, ending in a lingering shot of a trash heap. Is this the grave of the buried child? In its off-kilter combination of Wild West attributes and off-handed surrealism, this ending (the film as a whole, for that matter) certainly suggests a scenario that’s concocted from equal parts Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, with maybe just a smidgen of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona thrown in for good measure.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray transfer has undoubtedly received a little extra TLC: It’s cleaner, clear, sharper, and brighter than the previous SDVD. Color saturation is deeper and fuller, especially the ubiquitous yellows and purples. Grain levels rarely overwhelm, except during Pinky’s superimposition-laden dream. The English LPCM 1.0 track is more than adequate to deliver ambience, bringing out background sounds like the lap and drip of water in the rehab spa, articulating Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue, and foregrounding Gerald Busby’s often ominous score, heavy on the bassoon and clarinet.

Extras

Identical to the DVD package. Altman’s commentary track is one of his most listenable, overflowing with the director’s native intelligence. Rarely does he drop off into silence, or simply tread water recapping the admittedly slender plotline, instead retailing anecdotes from the 3 Women‘s production history that nicely convey his dry, observational humor. At one point, he enthuses about Spacek: “She was the greatest thing to come along the pike since hash.”

Overall

If you’ve ever wanted to take the plunge into the deep end of Robert Altman’s brainpan, Criterion’s impeccable Blu-ray transfer presents the ideal jumping-off point.

Cast: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell, Sierra Pecheur, Craig Richard Nelson, Maysie Hoy, Belita Moreno, Leslie Ann Hudson, Patricia Ann Hudson Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Robert Altman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 124 min Rating: R Year: 1977 Release Date: September 13, 2011 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Julien Duvivier’s Panique

This dynamic and balanced restoration makes a significant case for the film as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

4.5

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Panique

Julien Duvivier’s Panique informs small-town life with rich menace, suggesting a correlation can exist between vicious gossip and physical violence, as people seek to assert dominion over the reputations of their neighbors out of boredom and resentment. Throughout the film, a doubling motif links classism with atrocity, and rumor-mongering with the tragedy it incites—such as linked images of two funerals, one of the murder victim that drives the film’s plot, the other of a person framed for the murder, essentially for being an eccentric outcast. As in many a film noir, Panique has, at its center, the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism.

The outcast is Monsieur Hire, played by Michel Simon, in casting that recalls Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. In both films, Simon plays a frumpy, lonely, and artistic man stuck in his own head, who falls for a beautiful woman who exploits his affections with the encouragement of her true lover. Renoir allows us to understand from the outset that Simon’s character is trapped, by his self-loathing as much as by his manipulators, while Duvivier offers a panorama that gradually closes in on Hire. In fact, one of the driving pleasures of Panique’s first act is in attempting to discern where it’s going, as Duvivier studies the respective habits of a baker, a prostitute, a shifty young man, a hypocritical accountant, and so forth. The film’s foreboding emphasis on daily life sometimes suggests The Marseille Trilogy by way of Shirley Jackson.

Hire initially appears confident, accepting his status in this picturesque country as the resident weirdo. After resisting the butcher’s attempts to talk with him, Hire orders a bloody pork loin and proceeds to the cheese shop to search for its “ripest” Camembert. Such details, which are plentiful in Panique, are amusing for their own sake while revealing that Hire fashions himself a ghoulish aesthete who’s somewhat difficult for the sake of being difficult. (The emphases on blood and ripeness also suggest a rechanneling of thwarted sexual hungers.) Unlike the immediately pitiable hero of La Chienne, Hire allows the audience to enjoy his loneliness. Perhaps this is a man who’s figured out how to live apart from society with dignity intact. In other words, Hire, who possesses the gifts of Simon’s own inherently introverted magnetism, flatters similarly-minded people in the audience.

This narrative misdirection mirrors Hire’s fooling of himself, underscoring how he’s attempted to transcend his human need for companionship—a nuance that renders his fall from grace all the more moving. As Hire becomes intoxicated with Alice (Viviane Romance), Simon’s physicality becomes subtly heavier and more awkward, as the actor understands Hire to be reverting to a vulnerable state that’s been long suppressed. Duvivier’s compositions complement this notion, particularly when Hire is framed in his cluttered apartment, regarding Alice’s residence from below as carnival lights luridly illuminate him. The carnival isn’t only a metaphor for the “show business”—the manipulations, the play-acting—that govern everyday life, but for how society always requires freaks for projection and ostracizing.

A beautiful and merciless film, Panique has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis, which is apparent in the way the conspiring villagers are shown to unify against a diseased cause that’s been engineered by a third party. And such an association is complicated further by the controversy of Duvivier leaving his country for Hollywood during WWII, which is helpfully illuminated in the essays in the booklet included with this disc. But humankind has so often betrayed itself—honoring its irrational base instincts above issues of morality or common sense—that Panique now operates as a free-floating nightmare of persecution, one which offers a vividly haunting victim. As Hire ascends a building to his doom, fleeing his vengeful neighbors, one may think of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, only in this case there’s no mythical creature to offer one the distancing assurance of the fantastic.

Image/Sound

The image has a few minor blemishes but is generally quite sharp and rich in tactile detail. Throughout the film, this superb clarity particularly emphasizes the relationship between the various foregrounds and backgrounds of the frames, underscoring the vitality of tracking shots that elaborate on the various connections between the characters, emphasizing how small this troubled community really is. Blacks are rich, and whites are delicately soft, the latter of which is important in rendering characters’ flesh, particularly in the surprisingly erotic images of a woman teasing her male voyeur with glimpses of her body. The monaural soundtrack expertly preserves the film’s intricate soundstage, which often pivots on a contrast between the sounds of everyday work (carpentry and butchery) and those of the carnival, which physicalize the lurid thoughts driving the narrative’s action.

Extras

“The Art of Subtitling,” a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, offers an unusual and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day challenges of translating foreign dialogue into English text. Like a lot of things many of us take for granted, subtitling requires an exactitude and discipline that’s invisible at first glance. For instance, a subtitle must disappear before one image segues into another, so as to not jar the audience. And, for the sake of flow, subtitles must also summarize dialogue rather than literally transcribe it, so that an audience doesn’t spend a film’s entire running time reading. Goldstein also examines the process of updating and improving subtitle tracks over the years as films are restored, including the production of the new track of Panique that was commissioned for this release, as modern audiences have grown to crave a precise rendering of the slang and humor that give characters and narratives texture.

A new interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of legendary Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, offers an inside look at how Julien Duvivier altered one of his father’s novels to arrive at the screenplay for Panique, while providing a short overview of Georges’s life, particularly during WWI and WWII. (Georges wasn’t especially fond of the many films made from his work, though Pierre has high praise for Panique.) Meanwhile, a conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot succinctly covers a variety of topics, especially the rocky reception that Duvivier received when he returned to France after working in the United States so as to dodge the Nazi occupation. French audiences, somewhat understandably, were resistant to a critique of mob justice from someone who managed to avoid the danger and turmoil of the mob altogether. The essays by film scholar James Quandt and Duvivier expert Lenny Borger also discuss the political context of Panique, while reveling in the film’s brilliant melding of realist and expressionist textures. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but informative supplements package.

Overall

With this dynamic and balanced restoration, Criterion makes a significant case for Panique as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

Cast: Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Charles Dorat, Louis Florencie, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières Director: Julien Duvivier Screenwriter: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Brian De Palma’s Obsession

Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade from Shout! Factory.

4

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Obsession

Geneviève Bujold was a little bit like the Björk of late-‘60s, early-‘70s cinema. She worked between predominately pop-minded American films and hermetic, aggressively Euro productions, coasted a long way on adorably pliable looks, and kept you perpetually off-balance with her off-kilter line readings and interpretations. She was a sterile cuckoo with a voice whose grit confirmed the darkness in her eyes. Paul Schrader may have ended up having to capitulate Obsession’s original (ridiculous) scripted ending to the will of Brian De Palma, but the casting of Bujold in what is essentially Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo results in a literary emphasis not seen in De Palma’s work again until the strong-arm showboating of Oliver Stone and David Mamet.

Obsession is, as far as De Palma’s tributes to Hitchcock go, half-baked and far-fetched without even the benefit of being audacious-unto-tasteless. It’s the film in which the only dearth of a metaphoric “double” is the comedy mask that ought to complement the dour visage of tragedy. (Is that the reason that it’s Obsession, and not any other De Palma film up until Femme Fatale, that’s included in the top 1,000 film list of Jonathan Rosenbaum, who sneered at the director for delighting in audience reactions to Dressed to Kill?)

While Bernard Herrmann’s rapturously funereal score (with at least four separate dirge leitmotifs swirling around the opulent, central “Valse Lente”) ratchets up Obsession’s metastasized, polluted doom-gloom, Bujold takes her role in the opposite direction, at least initially. (The character is a screenwriter’s “pitch” if there ever was one—e.g., “What if we took the idea that Kim Novak was practically young enough to be James Stewart’s daughter and just ran with that?”) Within minutes of meeting Cliff Robertson’s sad sack Michael, Bujold’s Elizabeth bites heartily into Schrader’s symbolic dialogue about the ethical implications of discovering an original draft of art and restoring the revision.

That’s clearly an expression of self-deprecating guilt from a writer who felt a little dirty turning Vertigo into a teary-eyed sick joke. But Bujold’s enthusiasm as a performer redeems the entire picture, especially when she’s asked to perform flashback scenes that shouldn’t work, but, thanks to her, represent another of De Palma’s fearlessly experimental whims.

Image/Sound

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography has looked too washed-out on previous home-video editions of the film, but it finally looks right on Shout’s Blu-ray. Colors are natural and the exaggerated lighting dazzles when refracted off of mirror surfaces. Even more impressive is the surround-sound remix, which amplifies Bernard Herrmann’s bombastic, swelling score to deafening levels while leaving all dialogue clear in the center channel. The original mono track is also included and sounds every bit as crisp despite the lack of separation.

Extras

On his commentary track, Douglas Keesey offers a drily academic breakdown of the film. The author of Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film sounds too much like he’s reading from a script, but he still provides intriguing observations on the director’s stylistic flourishes. Interviews with producer George Litto and editor Paul Hirsch see both men reminiscing about their careers and work with De Palma, with the former more gregarious about his own life and the latter more specific about the details of his work on Obsession. An archival documentary on the film features interviews with De Palma, Cliff Robertson, and Geneviève Bujold, who all reflect on the film’s production and how well they worked together. The disc also includes a trailer, radio spots, and an image gallery.

Overall

Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade, highlighting the dreamy haze of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s score better than any home-video release of the film to date.

Cast: Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Wanda Blackman, J. Patrick McNamara, Stanley J. Reyes, Nick Kreiger, Stocker Fontelieu Director: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Paul Schrader Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 1976 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

4.0

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Forty Guns

Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.

When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.

Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.

Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.

This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.

The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.

The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.

Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.

Image/Sound

Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.

Extras

The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.

Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.

Overall

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video

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