Three Violent People

There are movies with strong openings, those which grab one’s attention from the very first shot and never relinquish their grasp thereafter. Others are slow burners, seemingly leading viewers down drifting, meandering paths till they finds themselves inveigled into the story in spite of themselves. Then of course there are the uneven affairs, movies which could be said to suffer from an identity crisis, confidently striking out in one direction before abandoning that plan entirely and gradually transforming themselves in a wholly unexpected manner. Three Violent People (1957) falls into that latter category, the broad beginning flirts and teases then segues into a lengthy middle section that lacks energy, before hitting the home straight with renewed vigor and purpose.

Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) returns to Texas after the Civil War with three basic aims: to get his sprawling ranch back on a paying basis, to keep the grasping Carpetbaggers at arm’s length, and to find a woman to settle down with and make his wife. A brief dust-up with some of the aforementioned Carpetbaggers leaves him with a sore head, empty pockets and the strong suspicion that he’s just been rolled by newly arrived Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter). She is one of those ladies discreetly referred to as “saloon girls”, though with a polished line in patter that creates the illusion of refinement and gentility. Her plan is to hook the well-to-do Captain Saunders and worry about the consequences of his finding out about her real past later. Well, she manages the first in record time and, not long after setting up home on the Saunders ranch, that deception does indeed come back to haunt her. In the meantime, Saunders finds himself butting heads with the crooked representative of the provisional government (Bruce Bennett) and his chief enforcer (Forrest Tucker).

Three Violent People was written by James Edward Grant and it is a very inconsistent picture. The opening suggests we’re in for a relatively light confection and both Baxter and Heston play it accordingly at that stage. However, as soon as they are married and the action moves to the ranch, the tone alters radically, not least with the introduction of Heston’s one-armed brother (Tom Tryon). It morphs into something that borders on the Shakespearean; guilt, retribution and envy all jostle for position as honor, decorum and the weight of expectation gaze broodingly from out of the past, and quite literally down from the portraits hanging sternly above the hearth. The ingredients here are certainly tempting, strongly spiced by the complication provided by Baxter’s pregnancy, while the machinations of Bennett and Tucker act as a savory side dish. Still and all, the end result is a stodgy concoction, that overstuffed middle proving to be a little too rich. The last act saves it somewhat – a face-off timed by an upturned whiskey decanter, a brisk yet gratifying duel, and a wrap-up that blends vindication and personal growth.

Three Violent People wouldn’t rank as Charlton Heston’s best role in westerns, but he still does what he can with it. He had a knack for walking that line between pride and implacable priggishness. That emotional puritanism is given a good run-out here and collides headlong with the natural compassion that arises from the plight that Baxter finds herself facing. As he finds almost everyone turning against him, he starts to unbend emotionally and morally and manages to redeem himself in the end. Baxter is fine as the woman looking for a way out in life, taking the kind of rash decision that fits the feisty and mischievous woman we first encounter and then finding that she has the requisite steel within when her deception is dragged out into the light.

Tom Tryon, an actor I’ve never been that keen on excepting a good enough turn in Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, is much less effective as the maimed brother. His role is poorly defined, there is resentment there, as one would expect, and bitterness too. However, his demeanor is a little too glib and arch and it’s difficult to get a handle on his real motives. It doesn’t help either that his character’s disability looks hugely unconvincing – just like a man wearing a large and bulky sling under his shirt. Forrest Tucker is reliably mean as the hired gun, conniving and blustering in his characteristic style. One of the real standout performances, however, comes from Gilbert Roland as Heston’s foreman. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Roland give a bad performance and his role in Three Violent People offers ample opportunity to display his unique style, that suave, man of the world wisdom and shrewdness. He brings a touch of grandness to the part, offering Heston’s stiff prude an object lesson in dignity and true honor in one of the key scenes late in the movie as he disdains a tainted toast following the birth of his employer’s child. It is a terrific moment and Heston’s stung and startled countenance as the man he has esteemed all his life excoriates his pompous moralizing is something to behold. It is his holding up of a mirror to Heston’s sanctimony that sets the character on the road to salvation. In support, Bruce Bennett is a bit colorless and lacks bite, while Jamie Farr (who I will always think of as Klinger from MASH) and the controversial and recently deceased Robert Blake both appear as sons of Gilbert Roland.

The movie was released on DVD by Paramount many years ago and the widescreen transfer looks acceptable, but maybe not a strong as some of the studio’s other titles do. Generally, I am fond of the films of Rudolph MatĂ©, but Three Violent People is a weaker effort. It’s not a bad film, and I certainly hope I haven’t slated it here, but it is not all it might have been either. The writing needed to be tighter and some of the internal conflict lacks the punch it ought to have. This, in conjunction with some rather lackluster work from Tom Tryon in a pivotal role, diminishes the overall effect of the production.

Forty Guns

How does one describe the cinema of Samuel Fuller? Words like brash and bold tend to be used, perhaps even overused, when his name is brought up. Nevertheless, those adjectives fit, they capture the essence of his filmmaking, the energy, the almost primal disregard for convention and taste. Fuller didn’t make that many westerns altogether, but they are all interesting and memorable, not least for the way they show a director at work who was in love with that work. Forty Guns (1957) is an invigorating example of Fuller’s filmmaking, pummeling and assaulting the senses right from that famous opening shot; the movie charges at us head-on with fury and passion, a visual and aural challenge that is as neat an example as any of how much breadth and confidence the western genre had attained in the late 1950s.

That opening sequence sets the tone, and indeed the pace for everything that follows, a pounding, intimidating and disorientating sensation that rarely lets up till the movie reaches its shockingly unexpected climax a mere eighty minutes later. One hour and twenty minutes to introduce viewers to Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), a Wyatt Earp style figure who is on his way to Cochise County to arrest a man. He’s accompanied by his two brothers, Wes (Gene Barry) who acts as his backup and Chico (Robert Dix) who is due to be packed off to California and a less hazardous life. The forty guns of the title (or forty thieves as Sullivan later refers to them, evoking the One Thousand and One Nights and thus adding to that fantastic unreality which the film wholeheartedly embraces) are in the employ of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the de facto boss of the territory. Brockie (John Ericson) is her younger brother, a spoiled, psychopathic wastrel who uses his sister’s influence and the implied threat of her private army to terrorize women, the town marshal, and frankly anyone who attracts his attention with impunity. Jessica Drummond’s reputation precedes her, her riders have as near as not run the Bonnell brothers off the road, and then her brother’s anarchic spitefulness threatens to lay waste to the whole town. It is here that Griff Bonnell has his hand forced; coolly pistol whipping Brockie into submission and tossing him into jail, he lays down his marker even before riding out to the Drummond ranch with his warrant to arrest one of the hired guns.

It now builds toward a battle for supremacy, both of the heart and the land. The whole setup at the Drummond house continues this theme of the fantastic and if not unreality then perhaps hyperreality. Even if the table is rectangular rather than round, there is something positively Arthurian about the image of Jessica lounging like royalty at the head of that table, flanked on her left by the aggressive and unpredictable Brockie while taking pride of place at her right hand is the soft-spoken but cunning and tragically devoted sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger). In a movie with more than its fair share of visually memorable tableaux, a long tracking shot leads into the kind of double entendre laden conversation one wouldn’t normally expect to find in a western from the 1950s, with an exchange about the potency and volatility of Griff’s weapon. How that got past the censors, I’ll never know.

The whole thing then winds its way through a number of Earp/Clanton allusions towards a conclusion which is not so much a gunfight at the OK Corral as a daring example of Fuller’s characteristic audacity, flipping one of the cardinal conventions of not only the western but cinema in general in a movie which has already stampeded across so many viewer expectations. The director never really lets up in this movie, goading and provoking at every opportunity, painting his picture with the kind of broad brushstrokes that only supreme self-confidence permits, and only a man who lives for making movies would even countenance the kind of risks such an approach runs. Frankly, this is not a movie that will appeal to everyone, it is, perhaps like Fuller himself, too vivid and stylized to gain universal approval. I guess it comes down to this, you either “get” Fuller and his filmmaking or you don’t, and there’s little or no room for equivocation about it. He may be said to have produced a good deal of stylized work but, unlike directors less committed to their art, it was not a case of style over substance. If realism was of little concern to him, then what did matter was getting at the reality of the feelings that dwell at the heart of the movie. That cocksure presentation eschews prosaic realism for a pulpy assertiveness. His demands for the viewer’s attention might seem cartoonish on occasion, but once he has captured that attention there is no doubting the sincerity of the emotion he has been striving to highlight.

That sincerity is apparent on a number of occasions, most notably in the scenes which see Dean Jagger  interacting with Stanwyck. There is his slow departure from the dinner table when Sullivan pays his first visit to the Drummond ranch, a dragging reluctance to leave where Stanwyck’s dismissal and his compliance is achieved without a word being spoken, merely an exchange of glances that express a world of regret. Then there is that final three way scene, part confrontation and part confession that gives Jagger his finest moments in the movie. We get to see a character who has previously traded heavily on the ersatz and the disingenuous coming face to face with the consequences of his longing and loss, and at that moment understanding that the truth he can no longer avoid leads to only one destination.

Late on, there is a funeral scene, following hard on the heels of one of those startling and abrupt instances of violence. The contrast with what preceded it is marked, showing off Fuller’s restraint and Joseph Biroc’s cinematography. The camera tracks sedately from one side to the other against a lead gray sky, broken only by a short close up on Jidge Carroll as he softly sings “God Has His Arms Around Me“, beginning and ending with the widow as she stands motionless and terrible in her dignity and composure.

Forty Guns was the third time Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck appeared together in a movie and they play off each other well. Sullivan’s confidence matches that of his leading lady and his terse, clipped style of delivery hits the right note for a character who is painfully aware of how his time is running short, how a rapidly changing society is in the process of overtaking him. Stanwyck’s fondness for westerns is well documented; she could tap into the kind of insolence that befits her character, showing off her riding skills as she gallops imperiously over the land she has claimed, as well as having the grit to take on a particularly dangerous looking stunt that sees her horse drag her across rough terrain in the midst of a tornado.

Forty Guns always looked good any time I caught it, and the UK Blu-ray from Eureka, which may now have gone out of print if the prices I’m seeing online are any guide, certainly boasts a fine presentation. There is a lot of Fuller in this movie and that is a plus as far as I am concerned, although those who are less attuned to his style and sensibility will probably get less from a viewing. To my mind, this is a significant addition to Fuller’s credits and to the western genre itself, a film I never tire of revisiting.