Here is a chance for me to apply what I have written about the politique des auteurs. My admiration for Seven Men from Now will not lead me to conclude that Budd Boetticher is the greatest director of Westerns - although I do not rule out this hypothesis - but simply that his film is perhaps the best western I have seen since the war. It is only the memory of The Naked Spur and The Searchers that makes me reticent. It is in fact difficult to discern with certainty those qualities of this exceptional film which stem specifically from the mise en scène, from the scenario, and from the dazzling dialogue, without of course speaking of the anonymous virtues of the tradition itself which blossom freely when the conditions of production do not deny them. I confess to only having, unfortunately, too vague a memory of Boetticher's Westerns to define the role of chance or circumstance in the success of this one, a role which hardly exists, agreed, in the case of an Anthony Mann. Whatever the case, and even if Seven Men from Now is the result of an exceptional contingency, nevertheless I regard this film as one of the exemplary successes of the contemporary Western.
Let the reader excuse me if he is unable to verify my opinions; I know that I am speaking of a work which he will probably not see. Thus decree the distributors. Seven Men from Now has only been released in a subtitled version, in exclusivity, and in the low season, in a small cinema on the Champs-Elysées. Unless the film has been dubbed, you will not find it in the quartiers. It is a situation akin to that of another martyred masterpiece, John Ford's The Searchers, released only in a dubbed version, in midsummer.
This is because the Western continues to be the least understood of genres. For the producer and the distributor, the Western cannot be anything more than an infantile and popular film, destined to end up on television, or an ambitious superproduction with major stars. Only the box-office appeal of the actors or of the director then justifies the effort of publicity and distribution. Betwixt and between is a haphazard question of chance, and no one - the critic no more than the distributor, it must be said - draws any appreciable distinctions between the films produced under the Western label. This is how Shane, Paramount's ambitious superproduction celebrating the cinematographic golden anniversary of Zukor, came to be greeted as a masterpiece while Seven Men from Now, much superior to Stevens' film, will pass unnoticed and will probably return to Warners' shelves whence it will only be brought out as a stopgap.
The fundamental problem with the contemporary Western undoubtedly consists in the dilemma between intelligence and naïvety. Today the Western cannot in most cases continue to be simple and traditional except by being vulgar and idiotic. A whole cut-price production system persists on such a basis. The fact is that, since Thomas Ince and William Hart, the cinema has evolved. A conventional and simplistic genre in terms of its primitive characteristics, the Western must, however, become adult and intelligent if it wishes to be ranked alongside films worthy of critical attention. Hence the appearance of the psychological Westerns, with their social or more or less philosophical theses: the Westerns of consequence. The apex of this evolution being precisely represented by Shane, a second-degree Western in which the mythology of the genre is consciously treated as the subject of the film. The beauty of the Western proceeding notably from its spontaneity and from its perfect unconsciousness of the mythology dissolved in it, like salt in the sea, this laborious distillation is an act against nature which destroys what it reveals.
But can one directly follow on today from the style of Thomas Ince while ignoring forty years of cinematographic evolution? Obviously not. Stagecoach undoubtedly illustrates the outer limit of a still classical equilibrium between primitive rules, the intelligence of the scenario and formal aestheticism. Beyond this point lies baroque formalism or the intellectualism of symbols, lies High Noon. Anthony Mann alone seems to have been able to rediscover the natural, thanks to his sincerity, but it is his mise en scène more than his scenarios which renders his Westerns the purest of the post-war period. Now, with all due respect to the politique des auteurs, the scenario is no less constitutive an element of the Western than skilful use of the horizon and the lyricism of the landscape. Moreover, my admiration for Anthony Mann has always been a little troubled by the weaknesses he was willing to tolerate in his adaptations.
Therefore the first wonder that strikes us in the case of Seven Men from Now has to do with the perfection of a scenario which achieves the tour de force of ceaselessly surprising us within the terms of a rigorously classical framework. No symbols, no philosophical backdrops, no psychological shading, nothing but ultra-conventional characters in totally familiar occupations - but an extraordinarily ingenious mise en place and above all a constant inventiveness in relation to details capable of renewing the interest of the situations. The hero of the film, Randolph Scott, is a sheriff hunting seven bandits who have killed his wife while stealing the Wells Fargo coffers. It is a question of catching up with them by crossing the desert, before they cross the border with the stolen money. Another man soon becomes interested in helping him, but with a very different motive. Once the bandits are dead, he will perhaps be able to take possession of the twenty thousand dollars. Perhaps - unless the sheriff stops him, in which case he will have to kill an extra man. Thus the dramatic line is clearly drawn. The sheriff acts out of vengeance, his associate out of self-interest; in the end, the account will be settled between them. This story could make a dull and banal western, were the scenario not built on a series of coups de théâtre which I will restrain myself from revealing in order to safeguard the reader's pleasure if by good fortune he should see the film. But still more than the invention of such peripeteia, it is the humour with which they are handled that seems remarkable to me. Thus, for instance, one never sees the sheriff shoot, as if he did so too fast to give the camera time to capture the reverse-field. The same comic spirit surely accounts for the heroine's dresses - too pretty or too alluring - or yet again the unexpected ellipses of the dramatic construction. Certain scenes make one smile or even laugh. But that's what is most admirable here: the humour never runs contrary to emotion and still less to a sense of admiration. No trace of parody. It supposes solely on the part of the director awareness and understanding of the springs which he sets in motion, but with no contempt or condescension. Humour is not born from a feeling of superiority, but quite the contrary, from a superabundance of admiration. When one loves to this degree the hero one creates and the situations one imagines, then and then alone can one bring into play this kind of humorous distance which multiplies admiration through its lucidity. This kind of irony does not diminish the characters, but allows their naïvety to co-exist with intelligence. Indeed, here is one of the most intelligent Westerns I know but also the least intellectual; the most refined and the least aesthetic; the simplest and the most beautiful.
This paradoxical dialectic was possible because Budd Boetticher and his scenarist chose not to dominate their subject with paternalism or 'enrich' it with psychological elements, but simply to push it to its logical limit and to derive all the effects from bringing situations to their completion. Emotion is born from the most abstract connections and from the most concrete kind of beauty. Realism, so imperative in historical and psychological Westerns, has no more meaning here than in the Triangle films, or rather, a specific splendour arises from the fusion of extreme convention and extreme reality. Boetticher knew how to make prodigious use of the landscape, of the varied substance of the earth, of the grain and shape of the rocks. Nor do I think that the photogenic qualities of horses have been as well exploited for a very long time. For example, in Gail Russell's extraordinary bathing scene where the inherent modesty of the Western is humorously pushed so far that we see only the lapping of the water in the reeds while fifty yards away Randolph Scott is grooming the horses. It is difficult to imagine simultaneously more abstraction and more transference in the matter of eroticism. I am also thinking of the white mane of the sheriff's horse, and its big yellow eye. Knowing how to use such details is surely more important in the Western than knoking how to deploy a hundred Indians in battle.
It is in fact necessary to credit this exceptional film with an altogether unusual use of colour. Served, it's true, by a colour process (WarnerColor) whose characteristics I am not familiar with, the colours of Seven Men from Now are uniformly transposed into the tonality of a wash-drawing whose transparency and flatness recall old stencil-colours. One could say that the conventions of colour thus come to underline those of action.
Finally, there is Randolph Scott, his face irresistibly recalling William Hart's right down to the sublime lack of expression in his blue eyes. Never a facial gesture, never the shadow of a thought or a feeling, without this impassiveness, needless to say, having anything to do with modern interiority in the style of Marlon Brando. This face expresses nothing because there is nothing to express. All motives for actions are defined here according to occupations and circumstances. This includes the love of Randolph Scott for Gail Russell, whose point of origin we know exactly (the bathing scene), and its evolution, without the hero's face betraying a sentiment. But it is inscribed in the chain of events like fate in the conjunction of the stars: essential and objective. Any subjective manifestation would then have the vulgarity of a pleonasm. We become attached no less to the characters; on the contrary, their existence is all the fuller by owing nothing to the incertitudes and ambiguities of psychology, and when, at the end of the film, Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin find themselves face to face, the heartrending to which we know ourselves condemned is moving and beautiful like tragedy.
Thus the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Western is not condemned to justify itself by intellectualism or by spectacular effects. The intelligence we demand today may serve to refine the primitive structures of the Western and not to meditate upon them or to divert them to the advantage of interests remote from the essence of the genre.
Cahiers du Cinéma nº 74, setembro de 1957