When you think of classic Westerns, most likely your predominant mental images involve wide-open spaces, chiefly Monument Valley. Men on horses occupy a relatively small percentage of the frame, their tiny forms overshadowed by nearby buttes, distant mountains, and an immense swath of blue or gray sky, depending on whether you’re recollecting movies made in color or black and white. That’s the appeal of the Western in a nutshell, really: drama at its most elemental, with any given film’s manufactured narrative bound to seem almost inconsequential next to the inherent visual conflict of man and nature. There are certainly memorable interior shots in Westerns—for instance, the famous final image of The Searchers, with John Wayne shown isolated from the viewpoint of an open doorway. But even that stunner, though shot from within, looks outward to the vast emptiness beyond.
Funny, then, that the Western scene that’s stuck with me most vividly over the years takes place in the most cramped circumstances imaginable, with the great outdoors heard but not seen. Budd Boetticher’s 7 Men From Now (1956) doesn’t stint on the genre’s typical majesty; there are plenty of shots in which faces and landscapes vie for the title of Most Imposing. But the film’s dramatic apex finds its four main characters—upright sheriff Randolph Scott, his perpetually sneering nemesis Lee Marvin, and a timid married couple (Gail Russell and Walter Reed) caught in the crossfire—taking shelter from the rain inside a covered wagon, with barely room enough for anyone to stretch a leg. By this point in the movie, Scott’s attraction to Russell, and vice versa, has been well established, though it’s clear that both are far too honorable ever to act upon those impulses. Trouble is, Marvin has noticed as well.
Part of the nerve-snapping fun here, I think, is the self-conscious spin Marvin puts on his pointed anecdote—he’s openly performing for his captive audience, fully aware that his insinuations are anything but subtle. “You know where I’m going with this,” states the sadistic curl of his lips, “but because I’m pretending to refer to other people, ain’t a damn thing you can do about it.” At the same time, however, his rhapsodic comparison of Russell to this imaginary cheating wife throbs with genuine passion, to the point where it becomes clear that his needling has a more selfish and lustful component than we at first imagined. Marvin’s finest moment here may be the one in which he snaps himself out of it, returning to his original detached amusement: “Yeah, she looked a lot like you, ma’am, but not near as pretty.” (High praise also to screenwriter Burt Kennedy—incredibly, this was his first produced screenplay.)
Until now, though, I’d never been fully conscious of an additional layer to Marvin’s performance. Not long ago, I happened to re-watch Reservoir Dogs (“I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan, aren’t you? Me too. I love that guy”), and it occurred to me for the first time that Mr. Orange’s famous Commode Story is a bit of a cheat—it wouldn’t really work as a purely verbal anecdote, as the payoff in the men’s room is pure cinema. (If you doubt this, try as an exercise to finish Freddy’s monologue in a compelling way. Best of luck.) By the same token, while Marvin repeatedly asks his companions whether they’re sure they don’t want to hear the rest of his story, he does so secure in the knowledge that they’ll ultimately decline, if only out of propriety. If any of them were to call his bluff, it’s hard to imagine what else he could really say, unless he wanted to head in the direction of Penthouse Letters. His invitations are open taunts, and part of the enjoyment he derives is the knowledge that his audience can only suffer in wounded silence.
Boetticher—who in recent years has belatedly and deservedly taken his place in the Western pantheon alongside John Ford and Sergio Leone—chooses to fill that silence with a pronounced thunderclap. The sound of pelting rain has been audible throughout, but only now, as Marvin’s final offer hangs in the air, and Boetticher cuts from Scott’s fury to Russell’s discomfort to Reed’s shame, do we get a dramatic BOOM. I’m pretty sure that was a cliché even back in 1956, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s strictly a matter of whether the scene as a whole is strong enough to support that kind of melodramatic effect—what might prompt derisive laughter in a less charged context feels earned by the plain-spun eloquence of Kennedy’s dialogue and the malevolent ease Marvin brings to his role. In any case, I find that I invariably react with the slight shiver Boetticher no doubt intended, even though I’m aware intellectually that I’m being manipulated in the most blatant way possible. It fucking works.
Likewise, you can’t argue with the way Boetticher stages this scene visually. Sure, it seems obvious, in a sense, to have Marvin towering over Reed as the former implicitly charges the latter with being “a little short on spine.” Or to place Scott and Russell together in the frame, reinforcing Marvin’s suggestion that they have the hots for each other. There’s nothing groundbreaking or innovative at work here, but sometimes I wonder whether today’s filmmakers work a little too hard to avoid basic compositional arrangements like these, when simplicity would be plenty effective and easier to boot. At the same time, I do like the placement of the hanging lantern above but just to the right of the husband’s poor meek head, as if he’s the one person in the wagon oblivious to Marvin’s subtext (“I don’t understand,” he even mutters at one point) and the Old West’s equivalent of a light bulb just barely eludes his personal airspace.
Still, as I said, what ultimately makes this scene so memorable, on top of the sharp dialogue and Marvin’s sly performance, is its sheer atypical claustrophobia. In theory, the exchange could have taken place anywhere; within the context of a Western, crowding the four together in one small space for the duration was an inspired choice, one that manifests itself in tiny but significant ways. I love how Marvin sticks his hand out for his coffee cup long before it’s passed to him, for example, holding it there in a gesture of smug entitlement—a physical bit that wouldn’t necessarily work if the distance between the characters were even a little greater. Even Marvin’s entrance into the wagon at the outset feels like a sort of home invasion, which isn’t something often found in this genre. Nothing against those buttes, but the counterintuitive—blended, as here, with the classical—can work wonders. Maybe in a future column, I’ll tackle some sunlit noir.