In Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch weaves the personal and political with the fluidity of a musical conductor, merging a spectrum of tones and narrative curlicues. The Return is as comfortable inhabiting the cosmic—as famously plumbed in “Part 8” of the series—as it is the Double R Diner and the gas station run by Big Ed (Everett McGill). Lynch tends to a knotty, country-spanning, time- and dimension-hopping narrative while forging hundreds of intimate moments of grace, redemption, and damnation.
Despite what critics have claimed, The Return has a plot and it does matter, particularly as a structure for loosely governing an overflowing variety of comic, tragic, absurdist, and terrifying incidents. Lynch revels in television’s penchant for anecdotal drama, which mirrors the pleasing rituals of our daily routines. Correspondingly, our efforts to process The Return’s blend of conspiracy theory, fantasy, and character study mirror our struggle to forge the desperate elements of our lives into an explicable whole. The complicated narrative informs the small moments of the series with an existential counterweight, a suggestion of a grand elusiveness—God, in other words—that translates religiosity into a pop-cultural language. Lynch gives the audience permission to remain trapped in the show, endlessly mulling its poetry.
The soap operatic, an enormous element of the original series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and The Return, blows small emotions up to epic size, encapsulating the ecstatic intensity of the ordinary. Lynch offers a narrative, governed by temporal loops and numerology, that’s understood to be composed of dreams nesting within dreams, encased by a reality that’s potentially nonexistent. This framework informs the characters’ (and the audience’s) loves, triumphs, and pitiful embarrassments and failures with grandeur. This grandeur—hopeful even during moments of nearly unwatchable despair—is why Lynch’s acolytes are so devotedly obsessed by his art.
Though fueled by exploitation and murder, Twin Peaks is an idealization of America that’s rooted in small businesses that magically sustain themselves, which feel like anachronisms in our corporatized present day. At times, this folksy magic is underlined as the illusion that it is, such as when Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) is revealed to have a job in name only as receptionist for the police department, which has a computer-assisted operator hidden in the back of the building. It’s poignantly impossible to believe that Big Ed could still carve out a living running a full-service gas station, and the Double R is revealed to have become a franchise, capitalizing on the nostalgia that drives Twin Peaks. The elder generations of Twin Peaks, heartbreakingly humbled by the 26 years that have passed since we last saw them, appear to have been grandfathered into a pseudo-prosperous way of life that’s associated with the economic flush that the country enjoyed after the victory of WWII. Meanwhile, the children of these characters are bitter, disenfranchised, increasingly unhinged, and are rarely seen legally employed or moneyed.
The Return has a novelistic texture that’s unusual for Lynch’s work, and the audacious scale of it eclipses anything that recently comes to mind, recalling the televised productions of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There’s an impression of something having gone irreparably bad in Twin Peaks, paralleling the sense of wrongness that currently permeates America. The splintering of the soul of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) suggests a shattering of the country at large. And so Cooper’s quest to corral his various selves (notably the evil Mr. C and the naïve Dougie Jones) into a nuanced whole suggests America’s efforts to reconcile its present hopelessness with its history of atrocity, so as to proffer a salvageable vision of the future.
These subtexts are expressed by structural symmetries and carefully embedded objects, such as an ancient, well-built Ford truck (a representation of an ideal past) that a millennial killer (a harbinger of an awful present) drives. Lynch also often voices his preoccupations in straightforward fashion, such as when Dougie’s wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), proclaims to gangsters that she and her family are members of the 99 percent, who drive terrible cars and are tired of being screwed over by those in power. Later in the series, Dougie wistfully gazes at an American flag in a police station, seemingly searching for the meaning contained within the object, and Lynch, daringly willing to push the moment to the breaking point of obviousness, allows us to softly hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the soundtrack.
Dimmed hopes course through the sexy metallic visual sheen that’s markedly different from the Technicolored cinematography of the original series, instead recalling the industrial aesthetic of Lost Highway. This sheen is enriched by sad, playful, empty images, which connote a loneliness that’s not always devoid of pleasure. Loneliness can overtake us and affirm us with a sense of emotional robustness, jolting our senses and prompting us to savor the quotidian textures that define our lives. Lynch understands this bittersweetness, emphasizing the importance of small actions by slowing them down. When Big Ed has soup in his gas station, obsessing over Norma (Peggy Lipton), his eating is informed with a tragic ordinariness that’s worthy of the poetry of William Carlos Williams. When Dougie offers his son a potato chip, sliding it across a bedsheet, the movements of his hand are invested with quivering uncertainty. Throughout the series, the actors explode caricatures to reveal hidden passion and terror.
Passages of tranquility and empathy alternate with moments as lurid and insane as any in the Lynch canon. The Return is preoccupied with sexual violence even by the director’s standards, with prolonged scenes in which men dominate and obliterate women, which toe a fine line between empathy and masturbation. Mr. C hurts people with the casualness that one might reserve for ordering take-out, and his abuses of women are especially emphasized, such as when he beats and kills the young and pointedly scantily clad Darya (Nicole LaLiberte). Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is possibly revealed to have been ruined by rape, which might’ve imprisoned her either in a coma or within a dimension fashioned by insanity. Rape is so frequently referenced in The Return that it becomes a leitmotif.
The Return is a jolting exorcism of Caucasian male rage, which exists like a stagnant well under American society. Lynch displays profound feeling for the suffering of women while sexualizing many of them anyway, often so boldly as to underline the potential contradiction in purviews. His women are as identifiable by their modern noir-ish fashion and ineffability of being as the femmes of Alfred Hitchcock; and Lynch, like Hitchcock, rues male entitlement while enjoying its fruits. Lynch embraces the conflict between his erotic hungers and his compassion, refusing to resolve it for the sake of proffering a comfortably progressive social platitude, which might embrace the current trend of pretending that we don’t see people as sexual beings. This power struggle’s evoked by the director’s on-screen appearance as F.B.I. Deputy Director Gordon Cole, who’s accompanied by Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell), an F.B.I. agent who moves with a liquid sensuality that Lynch often fetishizes. Lynch later pairs himself with Monica Belluci and Bérénice Marlohe, respectively, practically daring viewers to chastise the elaborate contrivances of his self-flattery, which is proffered with a devilish wink that somehow doesn’t cheapen the many sexual psychodramas driving the series.
Much of America is split between a realm of theoretical free enterprise and timeless love, and a reality governed by anonymous strip malls and drab houses. Cooper discovers this latter real-ish world when he attempts to undo the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), an event that’s at the center of Twin Peaks’s mythology and which is therefore pivotal to Cooper’s own existence. Cooper embarks on a hero’s quest, which, as Richard Brody observed, is not dissimilar from the one driving John Ford’s The Searchers, as both are propelled by ego and a desperation for cleansing and control, as well as a yearning to turn the clocks back to an earlier and “better” time.
The Return fulfills the dreams and nightmares that must have accumulated within Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost over the last few decades, and purposefully collapses under the weight of the expectations that it refuses to gratify. The Return’s vision of community is quashed at the end, reduced to a man and woman who’re trapped in a cycle of pursuit and regret, exchanging a secret that could contain all or none of existence.
The image is a stunning tapestry of color and detail, nimbly capturing The Return‘s delicate balance of pristineness and purposefully painterly vagueness. The famous Twin Peaks landscapes are impressionistically lush in color, especially the browns and greens, with a bit of softness to emphasize a sense of subjectivity. The chilly industrial landscapes, which represent the soulless modern age, are pitilessly sharp and clean, with strong blacks and a subtle medley of silver and auburn hues. The black-and-white sequences boast vibrant shadows, and micro textures—faces, clothing, household objects, and magical talismans—are painstakingly specific. The soundtrack often pushes the Lynchian sounds—electrical hums, mechanic drones, windy whistling—to the background, while Angelo Badalamenti’s melancholic score usually occupies the foreground with its light, airy notes. The result is a pleasing and immersive balance of high and low pitches that abounds in aural nuances, suggesting many worlds to exist beyond ours.
“Impressions: Journey Behind the Scenes of Twin Peaks” is a five-hour exploration of The Return‘s filming, following David Lynch as he weathers the ups and downs of directing a massive project. Obviously this intoxicating and occasionally hallucinatory documentary—which has been split into 10 episodes, resembling a series of its own—has been managed by Lynch to cultivate his reputation as an eccentric, unconventionally sexy aesthete, though it’s also a vivid portrait of filmmaking. The physical toils of directing, which requires the making of countless impromptu decisions on a daily basis, have rarely been so exactingly elucidated. Lynch scans as an articulate, empathetic and organized rascal who homes in on precise details so as to lend his vision a pleasing tactility. Lynch’s rather vague with his actors, respecting the intangibilities of their own inspirations, which is remarkable given the highly controlled unity of their performances in The Return‘s finished form. There’s also a sensuality to Lynch’s kinship with his cast, particularly when he smokes with Sherilyn Fenn while explaining Audrey’s attitude toward her husband. “Impressions” is a must-see for Lynch fans that renders this collection one of the supplements packages of the year. This set is rounded out by more ordinary odds and ends, such as footage of the Twin Peaks Comic-Con conference, and a photo gallery and various promos.
The thorniest nostalgia trip in the history of television has been outfitted with a gorgeous and painstaking transfer, with a documentary that revels in David Lynch’s majestic intuition.
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Phoebe Augustine, Richard Beymer, Gia Carides, Michael Cera, Candy Clark, Catherine E. Coulson, Eamon Farren, Sherilyn Fenn, Sky Ferreira, Robert Forster, Mark Frost, Warren Frost, Balthazar Getty, Harry Goaz, Gary Hershberger, Michael Horse, Caleb Landry Jones, Ashley Judd, David Patrick Kelly, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Everett McGill, Clark Middleton, Walter Olkewicz, Kimmy Robertson, Wendy Robie, Amanda Seyfried, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlotte Stewart, Russ Tamblyn, Alicia Witt, Charlyne Yi, Grace Zabriskie, Chrysta Bell, Don Murray, Richard Chamberlain, Laura Dern, David Duchovny, Miguel Ferrer, Ernie Hudson, David Lynch, Jim Belushi, Jeremy Davies, Meg Foster, Robert Knepper, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, John Savage, Amy Shiels, Tom Sizemore, Ethan Suplee, Naomi Watts, Jane Adams, Brent Briscoe, Bailey Chase, Cornelia Guest, Nicole LaLiberte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew Lillard, Bérénice Marlohe, James Morrison, Max Perlich, Tim Roth, Monica Bellucci, Al Strobel, Carel Struycken, Ray Wise, Madeline Zima, Derek Mears, Sheryl Lee Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: Mark Frost, David Lynch Distributor: CBS Home Entertainment Running Time: 1025 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2017 Release Date: December 5, 2017 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
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