Budd Boetticher is the kind of director one likes to discover and recommend to fellow cinephiles with immense pleasure. A contemporary of such studio mavericks as Sam Fuller and Don Siegel, he hit his stride in the late 1950s (just in time for deserved Cahiers du Cinéma recognition) with a string of westerns that, if still less famous than the epic sagebrush sagas of John Ford and Anthony Mann, nevertheless resonate with a fascinating, deeply felt worldview. Known as “Ranown” after the names of cowboy-star Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown, Boetticher’s collaborators in this cycle, the films are modest in tone and intimate in scope, yet the unassuming surface always belies the director’s obsessions (in no small amount derived from a fixation with bullfighting) with rituals, machismo, irony, and life in a world one step away from desolation. Though often written by Burt Kennedy, Boetticher’s westerns abound in personal motifs that grow richer from film to film, so that, by 1959 and Ride Lonesome, the thematic concentration and crystallization could rival Ford’s in The Searchers. Rigorously laconic, the characters channel feeling into gesture, so that a sock to the jaw, the tipping of a table, or an aborted kiss can point to compressed emotion, or a shift of the soul. It’s no accident that transcendence-crazy Paul Schrader has vigorously championed Boetticher—his films are about scarcely less than finding grace.
Seven Men from Now is the first and, in many ways, the purest of the “Ranown” westerns, and the template for the ensuing films. Scott is an ex-sheriff introduced killing two outlaws in a cave—members, it is later revealed, of a gang who held up a stagecoach and stole a Wells Fargo strongbox full of gold, murdering his wife in the process. Guilt and vengeance simmer equally within Scott, so off he goes into the arid, stripped-down desert to finish his quest; he meets a married couple (Gail Russell, Walter Reed) on their way to California, as well as rascally Lee Marvin, whom he twice locked away. While Ford envisions the frontier in a constant flux between civilization and wilderness, Boetticher sees nature as the natural extension of the matador’s arena, where the characters’ dilemmas become “floating poker games,” to use Andrew Sarris’s term, staged in a void, far from the eyes of the town. In that sense, Boetticher’s works are far closer to the similarly underappreciated chamber westerns of Monte Hellman, where the endless spaces of the American West show an unmistakable tinge of Beckett as men ride in absurdist circles, looking for serenity. Like Hellman (or Clint Eastwood, another fan), Boetticher is aware of the conventions of the genre—that, for instance, Scott and Russell will fall for each other sooner or later, or that Scott and Marvin will have a showdown.
The effect is not one of (pre) post-modern nudging, but a questioning of the conventions through the director’s humanizing gaze. Marvin is the designated villain, yet given charm, humor, and life by Marvin, who, maybe not coincidentally, can resemble a younger version of Scott; the sense of loss that comes with his inevitable death is a testament to Boetticher’s ability to give a feeling of rounded people with just a few strokes. (Another example: An old-timer, given barely one scene, emerges as a full portrait via an empty whisky bottle rolling out from under his door and the line, “Injuns don’t bother with me. I ain’t worth too awful much.”) Characters grow in Seven Men from Now; Reed, tagged “half a man” by Marvin, is allowed a moment of self-recognition and salvation, while Russell shifts from object of desire to a feeling woman holding her own with the cowboys while realizing the power of withheld emotion. (Her “love scene” with Scott, with Russell sprawled in the couple’s wagon and Scott lying underneath it to escape the rain, climaxes with each gently blowing the flames in their lanterns, as gracefully evocative a moment of longing as anything between Charu and Amal in Charulata.) The ambush at the rocks is a model of compact, not-a-frame-wasted filmmaking, yet the focus remains on character above all, particularly Scott, whose stolid purity, with roots in silent cinema (André Bazin perceptively linked him to William S. Heart), is juxtaposed with the flawed humanity surrounding him. The connection bridges not only hero and villain, but, like the rest of Boetticher’s deceptively simple picture, the innocence of a genre’s past with the growing ambiguity of modern times.