Sunday, May 20, 2007

Seven Men From Now: A Footnote

I'm still trying to find the right tone for these blog entries; bear with me.

Admirers of the Budd Boetticher/Burt Kennedy/Randolph Scott cycle of Westerns seem to be about evenly divided on whether Seven Men From Now, the first of the cycle, is one of the best, or whether it's a cut weaker than later titles like The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station. I'm pretty much in the latter camp: Seven Men never seemed to me as assured as The Tall T, released only eight months later.

Without attempting to give an overview, I just wanted to add one observation to the debate: Seven Men has a rather different visual style than the other films, which is part of my problem. For one thing, Seven Men relies quite a lot more on longer lenses, both in action and interaction scenes. There are moments in the final stone canyon showdown where the editor cuts back and forth between telephoto-ish images and the medium-length lenses that Boetticher would later rely upon, and I really felt a difference in the emotional quality of the images. Nothing intrinsically wrong with filming people in landscapes with long lenses - look at Hellman's The Shooting for a Western visual plan built around long lenses - but that tone of remoteness is an odd fit for the tone of the Boetticher Westerns, and it's not used very systematically.

For another thing, I have the impression that Seven Men is more likely than the later films to move in for close-ups and cross-cutting, not just during the intimate scenes, but during almost any conversation scene. This raises the issue of over-emphasis in my mind, and it also has a bad synergy with the acting sometimes. Scott has his limitations as an actor, and I'm sorry to say that Gail Russell has lost a lot of her subtlety by this point in her career; there are scenes that are shot and cut to throw emphasis on their facial reactions, and that I don't think work so well. The decision to go in for close-up so often feels automatic to me.

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