1956. Starring Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin. Directed by Budd Boetticher.
A reference somewhere to Budd Boetticher as a “cult director” was enough to get me to see one of his late 1950s westerns, so I thought I’d watch the first, Seven Men From Now, and build up to the better-known and much-respected The Tall T. I love westerns but have had my fill of the conventional ones, and it’s not often that someone tinkers with the old formula enough — with a great story and performance like Unforgiven, or the ensemble masterpiece that is Deadwood — to make an horse opera worth its oats.
Budd Boetticher, from all accounts, was an outsider to the Hollywood way of making pictures. He began his film career unconventionally — after training as a bullfighter, he became a technical advisor on the bullfighting epic, Blood and Sand. This gave him a chance to direct his own film, The Bullfighter and the Lady, for John Wayne’s production company. This naturally led to directing westerns, which fit Boetticher’s preferences of directing from a saddle and using natural backgrounds instead of studio sets. He made a series of seven westerns known in the world of cinema as the “Ranown Cycle” and hailed, as is usual, in retrospect rather than box office receipts.
Seven Men From Now is a great start to that series. Randolph Scott stars as Ben Stride, the silent, square-jawed ex-sheriff on the trail of a group of seven outlaws who robbed the Wells Fargo office and killed his wife, who was working as a clerk. On the trail — and after dispatching the first two of the seven — he rides shotgun for a married couple (Walter Reed and the pale-blue-eyed Gail Russell) who clearly need help from the mysterious stranger to avoid a scalping. Soon, they are joined by a pair of troublemakers, including Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) who hangs around in case that Wells Fargo box with $20000 in gold goes up for grabs.
Stride once arrested Bill Masters, who claims not to hold a grudge but will clearly do whatever is necessary to end up with the gold. That includes recognizing Stride’s interest in the young wife as a way to divide the whole wagon train. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lee Marvin turn in a less-than-fantastic performance (doing everything I can to avoid thinking about Paint Your Wagon), and he’s great in this role. Boetticher is credited by fellow directors with creating the “likeable villain” and Marvin fills that role as Bill Masters — funny and with a sense of justice one minute, willing to cross and double-cross the next.
I was also impressed and surprised by Randolph Scott’s performance. His portrayal of the silent, simmering loner seeking revenge rather than reward seemed a bit ambiguous, and I like that. You’re never sure that you like Ben Stride (a role originally meant for John Wayne), but you want him to be the last man standing.
Seven Men From Now feels so much different from other westerns of its time. With the exception of a passing drunken prospector, the characters feel original and unburdened by western movie cliches. The Indians who threaten the travelers early in the film aren’t bloodthirsty, but starving and desperate, and Scott’s character shows compassion for them. Even the character’s motivation is original for a western — he is driven by guilt for having refused a deputy job, forcing his wife to work in the dangerous Wells Fargo office. It also features one of the best and most-memorable shootout death scenes ever choreographed.
Several times, Boetticher makes the unusual choice of cutting away from the action — a gunfight where you don’t see the fatal draw, for example. His instincts to film the opposite of what you’d expect pay off in every instance. It was only after watching the extras on the Seven Men From Now DVD that I learned how much I liked and appreciated his unconventional attitude toward his work. While watching the film, I couldn’t shake my irritation of the inclusion of a godawful theme song over the opening credits. And I happily learned that Boetticher hated it too, had been forced by the studio to include it, and tried to get it removed when the film was restored. It’s no wonder that Boetticher doesn’t wrap things up with a simple ride off into the sunset.