It is a dark and stormy night in the desert plains of the Old West, and a tall, imposing figure (Randolph Scott) is walking wearily through the rain towards a cave he sees up ahead. When he reaches it, he enters and meets two men who have sought shelter there, sitting by a small campfire; they regard him warily as he greets them, then invite him to partake of the coffee they have been drinking. Uneasy conversation follows, with the men asking the stranger where his horse is only to be informed it was eaten by Indians and he has been walking quite a distance. When he learns the duo have left the town of Silver Springs recently, they all realise where they know each other from and the stranger shoots them both...
And they won't be the last people who meet their maker during the comparatively short running time of Seven Men from Now as by the end the film has become a veritable bloodbath. This was the first of the much respected run of cult westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Scott in the latter half of the fifties, this one produced by John Wayne's Batjac company. It's easy to see their appeal, as although the characters may display moral ambiguities we are in no doubt that justice will be served, and the moody atmosphere enhances the tension, a tension born of knowing there is violence brewing.
They may be genre movies, and probably made to complete the lower half of a double bill at the time, but they provide drama of fine quality. The stranger is Ben Stride, an ex-sheriff of Silver Springs who is on a mission to hunt down the men who pulled off a daring robbery of the Wells Fargo station there. But why is he intent on killing the criminals? Because in the confusion, Stride's wife was shot dead and like many western heroes before and after, he's out for revenge. This vengeance is fuelled by guilt, as he had lost his job as sheriff but was too proud to take another post until he found one that he believed suited him, meaning his wife had to take the Wells Fargo job to support him. So he feels responsible for her death, and what could have been throwaway piece of background information becomes the dark heart of the story.
This is brought out in the character of Annie Greer, who with her husband is travelling cross country to what they hope is a better life in California. Annie is played by the tragically shortlived Gail Russell, whose melancholy and haunting looks mean she is the ideal substitute for Stride's spouse, underlined by the fact that she could have done better in the husband stakes. Nevertheless, Stride takes them under his wing, as he is well aware that the fierce Indian tribe is around, never mind the outlaws. One of those outlaws is the scene-stealing Lee Marvin as Masters, relishing Burt Kennedy's excellent dialogue as he circumspectly points out that Annie is a prize both he and Stride would like to win. Yet Stride has a conscience to assuage, although he's cautious about Masters and his partner and their obvious desire to scoop up the money when Stride tracks down the killers. If Seven Men from Now is something of a dry run for the later films in this series, then its attributes are at least well in place, and it builds to an exciting finale in the beautifully shot desert landscape. Music by Henry Vars.