Stuart’s Log: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956)
October 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Seven Men from Now is the anomalous Western that takes its landscapes for granted. Budd Boetticher shoots his sand-coated valleys, gnarled rock formations, and rough-hewn desert trails from just the right dispassionate distance, never close enough that they flood the frame nor far enough away that they punctuate great swaths of arid space. This is a cool, streamlined wilderness fit for a briskly paced Western that’s had all the fat hacked away. And as this unlikely 78-minute masterpiece goes to show, that’s a rare thing indeed.
It’s 1956, the Western has been long accumulating clichés, and veteran B-movie director Budd Boetticher, along with up-and-coming screenwriter Burt Kennedy, has set out to make the first in what is it to become a series of seven films starring Randolph Scott. And the movie he makes is so weirdly, detachedly confident in the power and familiarity of Western archetypes that it feels free to eliminate much in the way of backstory, psychology, action, and environment in favor of a few signifying details. The opening scene is borderline Bressonian in this sense: the harshness of the nocturnal wilderness is suggested by the negative image of a fire-lit cliff-side shelter, Ben Stride’s (Scott) hunger for violence by the hard lines of his sunken, impenetrable face as he studies the shelter’s two visibly nervous inhabitants, and their death at his hands by a cut-to-black ellipsis that threads the sound of gunfire to Stride’s acquisition of two unmanned horses the morning after. Within seconds we know that Stride is out to avenge a crime and that the two men he has just killed were part of a gang of seven that committed it.
What follows are situations familiar to Westerns but stripped of the usual flourishes. We’re taught to recognize a scene’s pared-down essence early on and then train our eyes for the buried thematic particulars. Plot synopsis is nothing special. Stride meets a friendly couple by the name of Greer who are in need of assistance, and he offers to accompany them on their journey westward. They run into Bill Masters and Clete, two crooks familiar with Stride from his days as the sheriff of Silver Springs, and it is they who shed light on the tragedy that has left him a bitter man out for revenge, the climactic enactment of which would appear to be the film’s big payoff. Only, there’s a lot more going on here than a revenge narrative, and it’s clear from the moment that Stride finds himself curiously eyeing the pond where Mrs. Greer has gone to bathe. Boetticher etches little sub-spaces out of his ready-made plot-functional environs where the story’s real drama—an examination of sexual longing and repression, denial and confrontation, and the amorphous definition of manhood—steadily unfolds.
The key scene comes about halfway through the movie. It’s another rainy night, and Masters, played by Lee Marvin at his snarling, swaggering best, enters the wagon currently occupied by Stride and the Greer couple. The master shot crunches the four characters into a cluttered confinement. But as Masters attempts to seduce Annie, and in the process humiliate her husband and tease out Stride’s innermost desires, Boetticher resorts exclusively to tight close-ups that isolate the characters from each other in abstracted blocks of screen space, the wagon now a nebulous zone of emotional and psychological tension. All sense of proximity and perspective breaks down to the point that the sound of off-screen rain is the only thing connecting us to the physical world.
Seven Men from Now ends in bloodshed, but to what extent it sets anything right is impossible to say. It all boils down to Scott versus Marvin—one the tortured Western hero held captive by unshakeable bloodlust and the other the complexly immoral villain whose honesty about his vices constitutes a virtue in itself—and the outcome sees Western convention become the stuff of high tragedy. More than a good, or even very good, Western in the classical tradition, Seven Men from Now is an iconoclastic masterpiece of genre minimalism whose complicated meditation on masculinity sets it far apart from the other action pictures of its day. Let’s not take Budd Boetticher for granted. – Stuart