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Seven Men From Now (1956)

by on 2011/06/07

“You move like you’re all over alive. You say words quiet, soft, kind of making a man wish you was talking to him, and nobody else.”

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I didn’t realize it until relatively recently: I’ve been a western fan nearly all of my life. It may sound strange to those who know me, what an agoraphobe I can be, how obsessed I am with gadgets, theories, and ideas.

The credit surely has to go to my mother and my father, themselves connoisseurs of cowboy pics. Through them, I was exposed to Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin, Jack Palance, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Van Cleef, John Wayne, and many more.

(Other stars, singing cowboys like Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers were less likely to attract our attention.)

Yet Randolph Scott eluded me, at least as a leading man. I knew him only as a footnote in the life of Cary Grant. Still, he was a star in his own right, one of another era. And just as Wayne had his John Ford, Scott had Budd Boetticher, a director who helped to guide him through his most important essays.

I don’t remember when I first heard of Scott and Boetticher’s partnership. It wasn’t far back, two or three years perhaps. In all likelihood, I was trawling lists of bests, greatests, and favourites, and their names kept reappearing.

Collector’s Choice pulled together a set of their work, but two significant pieces were missing: their first and final collaborations. I took it upon myself to obtain them, and the first, Seven Men from Now, surpassed my expectations.

Written by Burt Kennedy, and produced by John Wayne’s Batjac company, the story concerns Ben Stride (Scott), a former sheriff from Silver Springs. After the bold robbery of a Wells Fargo transfer — in which he has a painful personal interest — he is determined to find and kill the men involved. All clues point him to Flora Vista, where the seven culprits intend to reunite.

Along the way between the two towns, he encounters various travellers, notably salesman John Greer (Walter Reed), his beguiling wife Annie (Gail Russell), and insidious hoodlum Bill Masters (Lee Marvin). Their tales intertwine, twisting and turning in surprising ways, building to a desperate, climactic convergence.

The production is solid all around. The meat and potatoes approach is generally invisible, but with interesting exceptions. The notion of “less is more” is taken to unusual extremes. Editing conveys the speed of Stride drawing a gun by not showing it at all. It works very well, and such examples are interesting, yet the technicalities are a distant concern given the incredible weight of its content. Seven Men is all about the characters.

Gail Russell is a standout and, when I searched for more of her roles, I was shocked to learn she was an alcoholic who died shortly after. The palpable rapport she shares with the hero is true pot-boiling chemistry.

Lee Marvin is also exceptional. He’s anchored every appearance that I have seen, including The Big Heat, The Dirty Dozen, and The Big Red One. His subtlety is as powerful as his dangerous sense of menace. His ability to sow smaller dragon’s teeth among the larger barbs makes him more dangerous than the usual thuggish gunman.

My biggest surprise was Scott. He’s not the best actor in the group, but he doesn’t need to be. His sympathetic charisma anticipates Sam Elliott for me. I was initially unimpressed with him. He came across as too old and frail, too kind, almost neutered, unfamiliar and unassuming. In time, however, his dry manner, practical economy, and tortured sense of chivalry become appealing. Moments of inexplicable harshness become less jarring when the details of our protagonist’s history emerge.

Although those outbursts seem cumbersome, his uneasy resting state hints at an angst-ridden substrate. The lingering intensity of the gazes he exchanges with Annie illustrate his struggle between avoiding temptation and longing. I found these moments unusual for a Fifties action flick.

This complexity emerges elsewhere too. In perhaps the single greatest scene in a western — certainly in this one — Masters visits the Greers and Stride by night, in a covered wagon. As the four talk over their cups of coffee, we sense more in their chat than the immediate and obvious.

Multiple subtexts writhe discomfitingly as Masters provokes Annie, demeans Greer, and tortures Stride. For his part, Stride knows exactly what the tag-along rogue is doing, and carefully, but desperately, tries to defuse the inevitable. Annie inadvertently complicates matters with her flattered curiosity.

The pathetic fallacy of a thunderstorm underscores the portentous meeting. It later collapses into a somber drizzle, and Stride takes refuge under the wagon. He shares whispers and wistfulness with Greer’s wife, laying mere inches above him.

It took me a little while to realize what this modest gem reminded me of. Seven Men from Now, though hardly a gothic drama, feels in league with the films of Val Lewton: a low-budget affair, simple and poetic, involving, and agonizingly intense. Director and star, Boetticher and Scott truly prove less is more.

The greatest compliment I can pay is to say it’s the kind of thing I wish I could take back in time. I believe my parents would love it. I know I do.

* * * * *

Rated G

78 minutes

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