Long unavailable, Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now (1956) should be considered one of the major home video releases of 2005. A Batjac production originally released through Warner Bros., this was the first of a batch of classic Westerns the director made with star Randolph Scott. Basically B-pictures, these films were all but ignored when they were new, but over the years have come to be regarded as classics of the genre. As is often the case with such pictures, film critics and academia types basically went from one extreme to another, completely dismissing Seven Men from Now for years but now overstate its merits and praise it to the skies. In the end, it's still a B-movie, but a very good one. Those familiar with the best psychological Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann will be similarly impressed by the character ambiguity here.
The film opens strongly, with Ben Stride (Scott) tracking two men through the pouring rain to a small cave, where he brutally guns them down. Later, Stride meets up with easterner John (Walter Reed) and wife Annie Greer (Gail Russell), tenderfoots from the east making the journey west. When their wagon becomes hopelessly stuck in some mud, Stride helps them pull it out, and later agrees to ride with them after they're warned by a Cavalry officer (Stuart Whitman) that starving Chiricauhua Indians might attack them further down the trail.
Stride is polite but aloof with the Greers, and tension mounts when they're joined by Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clete (Donald "Red" Barry). Masters, who's immediately attracted to Annie, reveals that Stride is a former sheriff who had twice imprisoned him. Further, that after being voted out of office, Stride's wife was forced to work at a Wells Fargo office where she was killed during a robbery. The men in the cave were two of seven involved in the robbery, and Masters decides to tag along in hopes of getting his hands on the $20,000 in stolen gold while the enigmatic Stride focuses on his personal vendetta.
Seven Men from Now works on several levels, most significantly in the complex relationship each of the leading male characters - Ben Stride, John Greer, and Bill Masters - relates to Annie. Her bland husband appears to have none of the understated courage of Stride nor the flamboyant allure of Masters. In the picture's key scene (reportedly the personal favorite of the director and screenwriter Burt Kennedy) he sits by while Masters openly expresses his lust for Annie, even correctly implying that Stride, too, is attracted to her.
The film breaks away somewhat from Western movie convention in making Masters cocky yet attractive, arguably more charismatic and certainly more approachable than Ben Stride, whose off-putting, super-reserved behavior toward the Greers keeps them at an emotional arm's length and the film's mood consistently off-kilter.
Always an underrated actor, Scott does a fine job playing a loner wracked with guilt over the death of his wife, whose murder he essentially feels responsible for. The character goes one step beyond the dark, obsessed men Jimmy Stewart played in the Mann Westerns, who usually had a mysterious past but who worked through his psychological crises and maintained a healthy supply of sidekicks and lovers. Scott's Ben Stride is genuinely disturbing, a man one quickly respects but who leaves the Greers bewildered and uncomfortable when they approach him.
Gail Russell, in her first film in half a decade because of her alcoholism, is very good as Annie, whose fragile state seems drawn from the actress' own life as much as her performance. Sadly, her drinking indirectly helps her compatibility with Scott. He was pushing 60 but looks younger; she was only 32 but looks nearly 15 years older.
Marvin, another notorious on-set drinker, gives a star making performance as the swaggering gunslinger, whose draw is so fast his final confrontation with Scott comes off as a big surprise.
Although shot very quickly (most of the Boetticher-Scott films were shot in 18 days or so), the film doesn't look cheap, only modest, with William Clothier's cinematography adding extra luster and Henry Vars moody score contributing to the atmosphere.
Video & Audio
Seven Men from Now is presented in a good but not great transfer apparently owing to some extreme color fading over the years. The film was shot in WarnerColor, a poor man's Technicolor if ever there was one, at its best a process that produced brownish hues that were pretty ugly to begin with. A restoration demo included as an extra shows how far Batjac had to push things to suck some life back into the color, but this is only partly successful. Were it really shows are during dissolves and fades, where the original lab work has faded to the point where all the opticals make a kind of visual pop whenever they appear. Incidentally, the original Warner Bros. logo is retained.
That said, the 16:9 enhanced wide transfer (1.77:1 with windowboxed titles) captures the director's framing quite well, and the image is as sharp as it likely ever will be on DVD. The mono sound is fairly strong; optional English subtitles are included.
As with all the Paramount/Batjac releases, this DVD is a real bargain considering the price, the heretofore unavailability of the picture, and the feast of supplementary materials. Seven Men from Now kicks off with an Audio Commentary by Jim Kitses, film historian and author of "Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood".
Next is 50-minute documentary, Budd Boetticher--An American Original. Like many studio-produced documentaries for DVD, this has its good and bad points. On the plus side is the insightful commentary by a wide range of talent, including directors Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Taylor Hackford, Peter Bogdanovich, screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Arnold Kunert, writers Kevin Thomas and Blake Lucas, and others. On the downside, to conform with (or get around) various union demands, the show is broken up into myriad mini-documentaries, including one section on writer-director Burt Kennedy, making the overall documentary play rather unfocused and schizophrenic. Also, because Boetticher spent most of his career outside Batjac and Paramount, there are no clips from any of the other Boetticher-Scott Westerns (most were made for Columbia) and awkwardly avoids discussing them. Finally, although the show is presented in widescreen letterboxed to 1.77:1, inexplicably it's not enhanced.
The John Wayne Stock Company: Gail Russell has the same limitations as the Boetticher piece, but otherwise is a touching tribute to the tragic actress, whose drinking essentially killed her when she was only 36 years old. The well-written and sensitively-spoken narration unjustly goes uncredited.
Lone Pine is a six-minute featurette on that familiar Western movie location, and touches upon non-Westerns show there, and the annual film festival that honors its history. An Original Theatrical Trailer is presented 4:3 and has narration but is missing text. This reviewer wishes DVD labels would come clean when their trailers are incomplete like this one. Finally, a better-than-average Photo Gallery has lots of behind-the-scenes production and publicity shots.
M.I.A for some 30 years, Seven Men from Now's release will hopefully inspire DVD debuts for the remaining Boetticher-Scott titles. Though it's best to put its modest aspirations into perspective, it's still one the best B-budget Westerns of the 1950s, and not to be missed.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.