Saturday, December 24, 2011

Seven Men From Now

The era of the Western, once the quintessential American genre, can be divided largely into two sections. First, there was the era of John Ford who, along with his drawling muse John Wayne, created simple, stark morality tales where the line between hero and villain was rarely obfuscated. From 1939 until 1956--when his finest and most morally ambiguous film, The Searchers, was released--he was the unquestioned king of the western and, by extension, of Hollywood itself, winning 4 Oscars and countless acclaim. By 1964, coincidentally the year Ford directed his last film of note, the genre had been adopted by the Italian director Sergio Leone, who spear-headed the advent of the spaghetti western. The world of the spaghetti western was more equivocal than that of Ford...  heroes (most famously the stoic Clint Eastwood) of uncertain character and motivation populated Leone's complex plots.

Gamely bridging the gap between these two titans was the iconoclast Budd Boetticher. A former bull-fighter turned studio director, Boetticher is most famously known for the seven low budget westerns he produced between 1956 and 1960. All starring the aged famed movie star Randolph Scott, these films are unique for their deceptively simple presentation which belies the subtly complex characters, and the varied interactions between them.

Perhaps the most famous of these is his 1956 film Seven Men From Now, which is both the first and most ambitious of these films. The movie opens with our hero, Scott's Ben Stride, emerging ominously out of the rain. He enters the camp of two men, obviously apprehensive at his presence. Who these two men are, and why Stride has come are initially a mystery; but after revealing that he's arrived from Silver Springs in pursuit of seven men responsible for a robbery and murder comitted in that town, he guns them down in an exchange of bullets that's as brief as it is brutal.

The next day, as Stride tracks his next victims through the wilderness, he happens upon a wagon stuck in the mud. The drivers are the mousy if well-meaning John Greer and his unreasonably attractive wife Annie... the young couple is fresh from Kansas City, but hope to eke out a new life in the woolly frontier. Stride is immediately taken by Annie and, after helping them out of their predicament, agrees to accompany them along the road for further protection. The attraction between Stride and Annie is immediate and obvious, yet goes unnoticed by John whose inability to protect his wife's honor becomes a running theme as the plot progresses.

Eventually, they run into two former nemeses from Stride's past: the eloquently forboding Bill Masters (a young Lee Marvin) and his mostly silent partner Clete. Masters playfully alludes to Stride's past, which to this point has remained a mystery to his fresh-faced companions, and the verbal sparring they engage in foreshadows at the violent final encounter between them which seems inevitable.  Masters and Clete forcefully join the merry band, with Masters having designs on stealing the riches from Stride after he exacts his vengeance on the seven murderers. Stride has a uniquely personal reason for hunting these men down; a reason Masters gleefully reveals to the young couple, and by proxy to the audience.

However, the tale of revenge itself is secondary to the characters and the verbal sparring and interaction that takes place between them. As Masters travels with this uneasy group, he takes an undue interest in Annie, while also making light of the fact that her husband John isn't enough of a man to confront him for his untoward behavior. When Ben Stride steps up to defend her honor, it merely underscores the fact that John was either unwilling or unable to do so, which further undermines his manhood.

Indeed, Lee Marvin is a revelation as the oddly likeable villain. It's obvious how much fun he's having in the part as he schemes and plots and plays each side against one another (later in the film he agrees to help the men Stride pursues, only to betray them in stunning fashion). One gets the sense that he comes from interesting story to toy with Stride and to pursue a modest fortune. The slyest and most compelling scene belongs to him; he effectively undresses Annie with his words by recalling a relationship he had with a women whose looks "were nothing like yours, Mrs. Greer." His tone implies the exact opposite.

Randolph Scott portrays Ben Stride with ease, a seasoned veteran fast approaching the end of his career. His eyes are effusive and expressive, which recall the tragedies of his past but also underline his determination to do what he can to put things right. A classy hero, he managed to be equal parts sinister and upstanding while managing to avoid the cheap theatrics of John Wayne's iconic speech patterns (ironically enough, Wayne's Batjac studios produced this feature).

The budding romance between Stride and Annie is developed with similar subtlety in a series of scene where much is left unsaid (though so much is expressed by the longing in Randolph Scott's clear, blue expressive eyes). The audience, as well as the characters themselves, are also acutely aware of the chemistry when they sleep at night, Annie sleeping in the wagon, while Stride sleeps directly under her... only the wooden floor of the wagon barring them from one another.

There's something comforting about a great Western. Despite the differences in the characters, the story or in the tone, one can always expect to see the same tropes examined and played with again and again. Individuals dwarfed by the sprawling, untamed landscape must fight to survive in the harsh, unsettled west and as such, the problems and connections between them are magnified and laid bare underneath the uncompromising western sun. Despite the low-budgets of Boetticher's pictures, he made full use bare desert landscapes and stripped his films to the bare essentials, realizing that no amount of money could compare to a multitude of well-realized characterizations.

Much credit for these must go to Boetticher's favored screen-writer Burt Kennedy who wrote the scripts for three other Boetticher-Scott collaborations. The dialogue crackles with wit, while also retaining the characters' authenticity. Unfortunately, Boetticher's career was cut far too short by studios who  labeled him a madman and so his steady and assured ability has gone largely unacknowledged when compared to the grand legacies that Ford, Leone and also Eastwood have left behind. However, from the talent evident in Seven Men, it's clear that, given the proper opportunity, he might have constructed a filmography that put them all to shame.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****/*****

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