Fate in the Boetticher westerns is often powered by the irresistible impulse: characters who simply can’t help themselves. The lion’s share of these movies, which include The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and others, are brief affairs, opening either on the middle of a story or near enough to its conclusion that it’s no challenge to visualize what’s going to happen, and to whom, with Burt Kennedy’s efficient dialogue serving exposition in precise strikes, as needed. Most of these men are about to die, but they meet their ends not facing their maker but each other, sometimes jaws clenched, sometimes surprised at the rude cancellation of carefully laid plans. Few western directors so frequently dwell on the un-empty gaze, the violent hand stayed with great effort, often only in temporary stalemate.
The fatal math of Seven Men from Now is borne by the title and its barely-veiled premise: Randolph Scott means to kill seven stickup men who pulled down a Wells Fargo gold score, in which his wife was a casualty. Revelations and secrets disclosed (or, more accurately, dislodged) delay and complicate the inevitable, but the film cannot and does not end until Ben Stride (Scott) finishes what he starts.
Into the mix, two outlaws, Masters and Clete (Lee Marvin and Don Barry, western icons in their own right), invite themselves along, not to assist Stride, but with eyes on the gold loot. Masters and his largely silent, bull-neck companion are a pair of rude appendages, as Marvin often played rude bastards with rude faces, insinuating dialogue, and loutish manner. In the tradition of the studio western, all his best efforts to serve his self-interest come a cropper, but his service to the story as an ambivalent but paradoxically moral spectator add not insignificant inflection to an arc otherwise defined by Stride’s taciturn, prideful revenge mission. Largely sidelined by necessity, Masters shrewdly usurps Stride’s agency when the latter takes a rifle shot to the leg, casting off the emotions that defined him in the middle scenes (hatred for the ex-sheriff Stride, lust for the wagoner’s wife, an aspiring homewrecker’s contempt for the wagoner) in deference to his greater greed.
Boetticher and Kennedy habitually include a character like the wagoner in their films, a weakling with one or more qualities that are unwelcome in the Old West, as well as in the western genre: softness, the smiling politeness of the out-of-towner, a readiness to compromise, a vague eastern-ness, etc. Anyone who sees the character in two Ranown westerns will mark him for death in the third. It isn’t that this habit is objectionable, per se, but when the films resort to storytelling expedients, it can be hard to watch. One can be a little disappointed when the Boetticher-Kennedy combine cuts corners, when their films are otherwise standard-bearers for genre leanness and purity.
The Kennedy scripts sometimes acquire their efficiency on credit, entreating us to look the other way when the fatal arithmetic gives the plot few options but to force a character illogically into or out of harm’s way. When the wagoner finds his gumption, he pays the highest price for it, in a showdown that’s less for our credulity than to push Masters off the fence. The logistics that bring to the killing floor the remaining “from Now” men, now no longer seven, is untidy, but soon enough the path gives way to a short burst of bittersweet crescendos, such as Masters’ realization that the wagoner was actually a standup guy, the lifeless Masters clutching the padlock on the Wells Fargo strongbox (his death outmatched finally by his greed), and Stride, now relieved of high emotion, seeing the Wells Fargo strongbox into the right hands, in an unmarked gesture of farewell to his murdered wife redirected by a lawman’s routine function.