52 Before 62 – #6 Seven Men From Now (1962)[1]

Poster of the movie Seven Men from Now.jpgDirected by Budd Boetticher

Story and Screenplay by Burt Kennedy

Starring Randolph Scott, Gail Russel, Lee Marvin, and Walter Reid

After his wife is killed in the robbery of a Wells Fargo gold shipment, the prideful former-sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) gives chase of the thieves, driven to revenge mostly by his own guilt at his wife working as a Wells Fargo clerk in the first place.  One-by-one Stride kills the men, meeting a wife and husband travelling to California (Gail Russel and Walter Reed) along the way, and also running into an ex-con Stride once put in jail (Lee Marvin).  Together they make their way along the trail, each with a different agenda than the other, bound only by a common destination.  In the end, Stride has his revenge, returns the gold to Wells Fargo, and puts aside his pride to take the job as a deputy to the man who replaced him as sheriff.

Any Good?
The story of Seven Men From Now is not complicated – the plot is simple and to the point.  A reductive recitation would describe the story as: Widower kills the men who made him a widow.  Except that recitation is hardly reductive at all.  Most times when you describe a plot, the finer points, or nuances, of the story are sanded away.  But for Seven Men From Now, there are not really any nuances, or finer points at all.  The story is literally, Widower kills the men who made him a widow, and the only thing that makes it unique is who the widower is, where he’s getting his revenge, and how fast he gets it.

But it’s not only the story that’s simple and direct.  No, the whole ethic of the movie is simple and direct.  None of the characters have any hidden agendas, and everybody’s wants/needs are fairly obvious.  For the couple (Gail Russel and Walter Reed), they just want to get to California.  For the ex-con (Lee Marvin), it’d be nice if he could put his hands on the stolen Wells Fargo gold.  For Stride, it’s revenge.  Even the twist near the end – which is not exactly a twist at all – is fairly obvious from about the very beginning and is no surprise when it happens.  The violence is not drawn out, nor are the emotions – I’m not sure Scott is capable of showing any other emotion than being square-jawed.  The dialog is to the point and, at just 78-minutes long, so is the movie.

But all this is not to say the movie is bad – it’s not.  It might be obvious and fairly old hat, but it has such an unpretentious, economical style that you can’t help but appreciate it.  And in a big way it’s a model for a certain type of storytelling and screenwriting.  After all, not a second of screen time is wasted, with every scene informing the next, and so on.  In the best films we see the story build from scene-to-scene without any of them feeling extraneous, and the plot beats should be character beats.  And while there isn’t much nuance in Seven Men From Now, it does not waste it’s time with anything but the forward momentum of the story.[2]  It just knows where it wants to go, and goes there.

Interestingly, I saw Seven Men From Now quick on the heels of Bad Day At Black Rock, both of which feature Lee Marvin as a sort-of heavy.  In Bad Day he plays a local goon who attempts to terrorize, but is ultimately bested by, Spencer Tracy.  As I noted in my review for that movie, I did not buy that the 30-year-old Marvin would ever be beaten at anything by the all-but-immobile lump that was Spencer Tracy.  In a movie that was already ridiculous, that Marvin was beaten by Tracy only adds to it.

Here, as there, Marvin plays a certain sort of heavy, and while he’s never really a bad guy in this one – at the end of the day he’s more an opportunist than a bad guy – it’s at least believable that he could lose a fight to Randolph Scott.  To be fair, Scott was nearly 60 by the time he made the film, which was twice Marvin’s age, but at least there’s a certain vitality in Scott’s performance which you don’t see in Tracy’s that makes it reasonable they’d be physical equals, even if they might not have been.[3]

Image result for seven men from nowRandolph Scott is not an actor I have much history with.  I’m more aware of him for being called out as the punchline of a joke in Blazing Saddles – “You’d do it for Randolph Scott!” – rather than as an actor, so it was nice to finally get to see him in action.  Interestingly, the night before I wanted Seven Men From Now I watched My Favorite Wife, one of the first Irene Dunne/Cary Grant comedies, where Scott turns up as the ‘other man’ who was shipwrecked on an island for seven years with Dunne.  In that film he’s basically called on to be handsome, physically fit, and just taciturn enough to never put his foot in his own mouth.  And if there’s any way the two roles are dissimilar, it’s that My Favorite Wife spares him a few more lines of dialog that Seven Men From Now doesn’t, and lets show some small bit of emotion.  Of course, this comparison is relative, since Scott isn’t so much an actor in both films, but a man with a certain sort of physical presence making the most of that presence.  To some that would sound like an insult, but to me that’s about the highest compliment you can pay.  If you’re good at something, and can make a living at it, there’s no shame in riding that wave as long as it pays.  And for Scott, that wave just kept right on going.

Just as I have no history with Randolph Scott, I also have no history with the oeuvre of director Budd Boetticher.  In fact, Seven Men From Now is the first of his films I’ve ever seen, despite being generally aware of his career.  If there’s anything to be taken from this one, it’s that Boetticher clearly favors an uncomplicated storytelling style.  His visuals are solid, but not flashy.  His work with the actors is to the point.  His movement of the story is unburdened by pretension.  One only hopes that other films of his I might run into will adhere to the same aesthetic.

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[1] The DVD copy that I watched has the title as 7 Men From Now.

[2] Don’t misunderstand me and think this movie is propulsive, or gives the story short shrift, because it doesn’t really do either of those, either.  It just has solid forward momentum and doesn’t get caught up in any wheel-spinning.

[3] For the record, Marvin and Randolph never fight, but there is a threat of violence lingering between them that only seems real because of the relative physical condition of both men.

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