Don't test Ben Stride's patience, even if you're Lee Marvin
Aug 29, 2011
This western, the first of four which were written by Burt Kennedy, directed by Budd Boetticher and starred Randolph Scott, is no work of art...but it definitely is a work of great craftsmanship. With a playing time of just 78 minutes, Seven Men from Now has not a moment of unnecessary characterization, exposition or motivation. Kennedy either makes a point with a few words or Boetticher does visually, and the movie just keeps going in first-rate story-telling mode.
Scott plays Ben Stride, an ex-sheriff who is hunting seven men. They held up a Wells Fargo bank in his town and made off with $20,000. There was gunplay and a person was killed, Stride's wife. Stride sets out after them and plans to kill them one by one. On the hunt, he meets a couple with their wagon going to California. The husband is John Greer (Walter Reed), a man who talks too much, is too eager to please and is weak. His wife is Annie Greer (Gail Russell), who loves her husband and is committed to him, but who knows the kind of man he is. Along the way they meet Bill Masters (Lee Marvin), a gunman who has some sort of history with Stride. Masters is following Stride because he plans to take and keep the $20,000. Masters loves needling, and doesn't mind at all if things get out of hand. They eventually wind up in a small southwest town where a lot of justice takes place violently and quickly.
This movie is a perfect example of how skilled professionals can create an efficient movie which works on many levels. Scott is the image of the grim, no-nonsense hand of justice. He's stoic, decent and won't be moved from his task of vengeance. I don't think Scott smiles once in the movie. Lee Marvin provides something Scott seldom had in his westerns, a counter-force with just about as much weight as Scott carried as a star actor. Marvin was never better than playing the contemptuous, dangerous, sneering bully, a bully who knows exactly how he can make a weaker man take a step back and who loves every moment of it. There is a scene in the wagon at night during a rainstorm with Stride, the Greers and Masters crowded together drinking coffee. Masters begins subtly implying how a weak man usually behaves. He starts telling a story about a weak man and his wife. Marvin makes us want to cringe on behalf of John Greer. There was something of that in Marvin's own personality. It made him an unlikely candidate for major stardom which he nonetheless achieved with the out-of-character drunk he played in Cat Ballou nine years later.
Between them, Scott and Marvin create a lot of tension, not just in the story line, but when they're acting together. Marvin almost steals the movie, but not quite. The result is a tense movie worth watching. If you like westerns, Seven Men from Now is a movie worth having.