It’s a mistake to privilege any one of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” over another, though the temptation exists and is easily indulged, especially if one takes the disparate, yet complementary, viewpoints of this inimitable sextet as entirely representative of its creator’s own principles. Strange that auteurism should fail us so completely in the case of one of its founding practitioners, but Rohmer was always an odd man out among his contemporaries, if not in the remove of years (a decade older than most of his Nouvelle Vague brethren) then in the deceptive placidity of his art. His revolutions, in other words, were quiet ones, couched in a perpetual remove and observation.
My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer’s greatest popular success, is frequently misremembered as a nonstop talkfest, as it begins with extended passages (nearly 10 minutes’ worth) of silent pursuit by an unnamed Catholic protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) trails a woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) who will, by film’s end, become his wife. The priest’s brief flirtation with the fetching divorcée Maud (Francoise Fabian) brings about his ultimate “moral” choice, a fascinating psychological mishmash of Catholic liturgy, Pascalian hypothesis, and Hitchcockian blonde/brunette dichotomy that’s all too often mistaken—at least in the West—for Rohmer’s own worldview.
At the heart of this misreading is the word “moral” itself, which is typically defined in collective terms, the conscientious needs of the society at large trumping the various bodies that make it up. These films are more concerned with individual moral codes and how they play off of each other within a given situation, and though the films share a basic narrative structure (a man in love with one woman is tempted by a second, only to return to the first), it’s the specific milieu and, resultantly, the characters who inhabit that space which determine the ultimate outcome. Rohmer puts his trust—his faith—in a sense of place: The bustling Parisian side streets of The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career beget the stark Catholic trappings of My Night at Maud’s, which lead to the dandified color palette of La Collectionneuse, the deceivingly nostalgic summertime glow of Claire’s Knee, and the Theremin-scored, post-1960s fatigue of Love in the Afternoon.
Even if Rohmer’s characters hew primarily to the middle class, the filmmaker’s gaze (complemented, in many of these works, by cinematographer extraordinaire Néstor Almendros) is all-inclusive. Witness Claire’s Knee, in which Rohmer relates a battle of generational wits with a complexity akin to Marcel Proust. The respective narrators of the “Moral Tales”—in this case Jean-Claude Brialy’s middle-aged writer Jérôme—always have their manipulations and powers called into question, though Rohmer, for a good stretch of this fifth film in the cycle, seems to privilege Jérôme’s intellectual lecherousness. His pursuit of both the headstrong Laura (Béatrice Romand) and the unwitting, vulnerable Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) extend from sublimated longings, specifically for his friend, fellow writer, and unconsummated love, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). That Aurora effectively masterminds the connections between Jérôme and his objects of desire shows that no one is completely innocent in Rohmer’s world, though such shades of character never come across as the finger-wagging judgments of a pseudo-aesthete.
The cruelty of Rohmer’s characters is casual: Jérôme gets what he wants by effectively destroying Claire’s youthful naïveté, using her cheating boyfriend, Gilles (Gérard Falconetti), against her to contrive a naked emotional moment in which he comforts her by caressing her knee. If this was all there was to Rohmer’s vision it would be limited and unenlightening; Claire would effectively remain a cautionary symbol and little more. But an epilogue shows Rohmer’s true intent. Jérôme is allowed his illusions (by revealing Gilles’s wandering lusts, he’s helped Claire to see the “true” way of things) and so leaves with his desires satiated. Aurora then spies an exchange between Claire and Gilles in which the former’s accusations of infidelity are quickly put aside, and not just because of Gilles’s charms. Jérôme, therefore, has failed, but he’ll never know. The intuitiveness of the image (revelatory, as so many of Rohmer’s films are, of the many mysteries of human nature) is balanced by a concomitant sense of hope, and the moral—if there’s indeed one to be had—is left for us to discover and then to, potentially, express for ourselves.
The Criterion Collection presents the “Six Moral Tales” in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, though there is some controversy surrounding these transfers. Criterion’s new policy (unstated on the packaging, which makes the practice all the more suspect) is to picturebox all their 1.33 acquisitions. As I’m to understand it, pictureboxing takes into account the overscan inherent to tube television sets where a good portion of the video-transferred image is lost, effectively destroying a movie’s intended framing. At this time, according to the numbers, most people own tube televisions, hence Criterion’s decision to picturebox. The problem comes with those who own widescreen and/or Hi-Definition televisions, as a pictureboxed image appears as a frame-within-a-frame, though, research tells me, the extent of this square black border surrounding the image varies between products. This is in no way a cut-and-dried issue and the debate rages on about the practice (see criterionforum.org and DVD Beaver for more discussion). Myself, I quickly acclimated to the framing of the films, though I find Criterion’s non-mention of this particular to be pretty shady, especially for a company that prides itself on offering the best available version of a movie in the highest possible quality. All that said, Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” have never looked better. Suzanne’s Career fares the worst, probably because it is a 16mm film mastered from a 35mm duplicate negative, but everything in this set, especially a newly vibrant La Collectionneuse, is infinitely preferable to the godawful Fox Lorber releases, which should now be rendered obsolete. Here’s hoping the “Comedies & Proverbs” and “The Tales of the Four Seasons” are on the horizon. All six features come with their original French mono soundtracks, suitably cleaned up to remove hiss and crackle. Optional English subtitles are provided on all features.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau features Rohmer’s 10-minute short film Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak from 1951, of primary interest in that the three characters of the piece are post-dubbed by Jean-Luc Godard, Stephan Audran, and Anna Karina. “Moral Tales, Filmic Issues” is an enlightening hour-and-a-half conversation between Eric Rohmer and producer-director Barbet Schroeder, the head of Rohmer’s production company Les Films du Losange. The interview was filmed in April 2006, just as Rohmer was about to embark on his latest feature project, The Loves of Astrée and Céladon. There are numerous insights of note herein, especially Rohmer’s admission that he now prefers watching films at home on video as opposed to at a theater (and he says this, tellingly, without a shade of regret for changing times).
Suzanne’s Career includes Rohmer’s 13-minute short film Nadja in Paris from 1964, a collaboration with the Serbian born activist Nadja Tesich that follows the young exchange student as she wanders through a dream-like vision of Paris (captured beautifully, once again, by Néstor Almendros). The final sequence, set on a highway overpass during an indeterminate dawn/dusk, has the feel of a small miracle.
My Night at Maud’s features a much-too-short 1974 episode of the French television program Télécinéma, on which actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, film critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell (sporting pimp-daddy shades) talk about working with Rohmer on this most famous “Moral Tale.” Rohmer’s 22-minute episode for the educational TV series En profil fans le texte, entitled “On Pascal” (from 1965), is a thought-provoking debate between the philosopher Brice Parain (an important figure to the New Wave, featured in Godard’s My Life to Live) and the Dominican thinker Dominique Dubark. Even within the relatively restrictive confines of television, Rohmer finds interesting ways to film this conversation, using subtle zooms and pans, and hard-cut edits to impose an insightful rhythm on the proceedings. Maud’s theatrical trailer rounds out the disc; its dull intercutting of select scenes from the film unfortunately lends credence, for those who place their faith in advertising, to Gene Hackman’s famed one-sentence critique of Rohmer’s oeuvre in Night Moves.
La Collectionneuse includes Rohmer’s 13-minute short film A Modern Coed from 1966, a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction that purports to explain the rising number of career-oriented women entering French universities. At times it has the feel of a horror film, especially when juxtaposing the protagonist’s dissection of a cat’s brain with her homemaker’s duties. The 1977 episode of the TVOntario program Parlons cinema (running about 51 minutes) features an extended interview with Rohmer in which he touches on numerous issues surrounding his films and the state of cinema. Most interesting is his observation that current events and movies are strange, perhaps incompatible bedfellows (“Don’t turn the present into fiction,” he opines), and he also gets a chance to address, with no small measure of humble acquiescence, Hackman’s dismissive Night Moves remark. La Collectionneuse’s theatrical trailer is an unappealing, not to mention misframed curio.
Claire’s Knee features Rohmer’s 17-minute DV short The Curve from 1999, which has the distinction, according to several reports, of being the first ever commercially screened digital production (at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival). Rohmer directed the movie as preparation for his digital feature The Lady and the Duke, but it is more than just an exercise, its tale of an art student (François Rauscher) who measures beauty only by comparison with the paintings and sculptures that he loves achieving a well-earned measure of Jacques Demy-esque profundity. A nine-minute excerpt from the French television program Le journal du cinema features interviews with actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan (the latter two of whom deliciously argue about what makes Rohmer tick). Like its companions the Claire’s Knee theatrical trailer makes a masterpiece seem like an exercise in tooth-extracting tedium.
Love in the Afternoon includes Rohmer’s 19-minute short film Véronique and her Dunce, a failed bit of whimsy about a delinquent boy and his tutor, too long by half if not by whole. A 12-minute video afterword by writer-director Neil LaBute is a respectful testimonial that only ever-like Paul Schrader’s video introduction to Bresson’s Pickpocket-scratches the surface of a great artist’s themes, ideas, and influence. Another theatrical trailer, another revelation that Rohmer’s films are nearly impossible to encapsulate within advertising’s reductive vernacular.
Also included in the Criterion package is a reprint of the English translation of Rohmer’s novelizations of the “Six Moral Tales.” That’s an erroneous description, in part, as Rohmer wrote these stories before he filmed them. As he explains in several of the included interviews in this set, Rohmer was uncertain if he would ever be a film director and so set down the “Moral Tales” in text so that they would exist in some form. Yet they also acted as an eventual blueprint for the screen versions and Rohmer admits in the book’s preface that the stories are, to him, incomplete without a corresponding kino-eye. That said, the tales do hold up wonderfully in these versions and make for an interesting point of comparison between a writer’s and a filmmaker’s differing approaches to their craft.
The final extra is a booklet of new essays on each of the “Moral Tales,” introduced by Geoff Andrew and written by Ginette Vincendeau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), Kent Jones (My Night at Maud’s), Phillip Lopate (La Collectionneuse), Molly Haskell (Claire’s Knee), and Armond White (Love in the Afternoon). Also included in the booklet are Néstor Almendros’s essay “On La Collectionneuse,” Eric Rohmer’s essay “For a Talking Cinema,” and an extensive cast and credits listing for all the “Moral Tales.”
Owning this set is your moral imperative.
Cast: Barbet Schroeder, Michèle Girardon, Claudine Soubrier, Fred Junck, Catherine Sée, Philippe Beuzen, Christian Charrière, Diane Wilkinson, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez, Léonide Kogan, Guy Leger, Anne Dubot, Haydée Politoff, Patrick Bauchau, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy, Mijanou, Annik Morice, Denis Berry, Seymour Hertzberg, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, Michèle Montel, Gérard Falconetti, Fabrice Luchini, Zouzou, Bernard Verley, Françoise Verley, Daniel Ceccaldi, Malvina Penne, Babette Ferrier, Tina Michelino, Jean-Louis Livi, Pierre Nunzi, Irène Skobline, Frédérique Hender, Claude-Jean Philippe, Silvia Badesco, Sylvaine Charlet, Danièle Malat, Suze Randall Director: Eric Rohmer Screenwriter: Eric Rohmer Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 480 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 - 1972 Release Date: August 15, 2006 Buy: Video
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
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.
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.
“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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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