Seven Men from Now (1956)
Seven Men from Now was Budd Boetticher's personal favorite of the series of low-budget westerns he made in the late fifties, early sixties, known as the Ranown Cycle. However, if we respect the origins of the term 'Ranown cycle', it's not part of it: the five official entries were produced by RANdolph Scott and Harry Joe BrOWN - hence the name Ranown. Seven men from Now was produced by Batjac Productions, the company founded, in 1952, by John Wayne. Originally the Duke was supposed to star in it, but he chose to do John Ford's The Searchers instead.
Randolph Scott is Ben Stride, an aging ex-sheriff, who is looking for the seven men who killed his wife during a hold-up in the town of Silver Springs. Stride feels responsible for the death of his wife because she had taking over the job of sheriff after he had abandoned it. Stride meets a married couple, John and Annie Greer, whose wagon got stuck in the mud, and decides to stay with them when he discovers that John Greer was in Silver Springs on the fatal night and might have vital information on the identity of the killers; the trio is joined by Bill McMasters, a man who was thrown in jail by Stride on two occasions and is now traveling in the same direction ...
The script by Burt Kennedy (his first), became a sort of template for the cycle: there's the lonely man's quest, the desirable woman, the journey through open country, the stop halfway and the man-in-between who helps the hero against a common enemy but will face him in the film's climactic moments. At the same time the tone is a bit more relaxed and the ending more upbeat than in some of the later movies. In the final scene the woman (Gail Russell) tells the stagecoach driver to depart without her, because she wants to stay in town, with Ben Stride, who has accepted the job of deputy sheriff. In the later movies the possibility to start over again was only open to (one or more of) the people Scott had met on his journey, but never to Scott's character himself.
Scott is in every inch this stoic but determined man, a carved figure in a bleached landscape, inexorable for those who've done him wrong, but a gentle father - a true Mozes - to those who repent or are under his protection. Lee Marvin is ideally cast as the man-in-the-middle, who temporarily sides with Scott (even saving his life when he's threatened to be shot in the back) before facing him; he has a remarkable scene in which he delivers a speech about adultery, clearly suggesting that Ben Stride and Annie Greer are thinking about doing the same thing. Scott's reaction - surprise mixed with anger - tells us that Masters sensed what was going on before Scott was aware of it himself. Of all these men-in-the-middle who refuse to step aside, he's probably the one who fathoms Scott's character best, and yet he's unable to understand why Scott wants to bring the stolen money back to the its rightful owners. He's filmed standing beside the Wells Fargo strongbox containing the stolen money, a bemused smile on his face, and even in his dying moments one of his hands reaches for the box.
The films are so closely linked - often sharing similar characters, themes, plots and landscapes - that they're sometimes judged as one movie. Kennedy's laconic humor and those magnificent Lone Pine locations turn Seven Men from Now into a feast for the mind, the ear and the eye, but personally I prefer some of those later efforts, notably Ride Lonesome (1959) or Comanche Station (1960). I don't like Gail Russell in this role; she had formed a great couple with John Wayne in Angel and the Badman (1947) - and this was probably the reason why she was cast - but she hadn't worked in the business for five years due to her problems with alcohol and the liquor had clearly taken a heavy toll. Moreover the 'happy ending' doesn't fit the movie, even though it's subtly handled by Boetticher.