The scene below, from Budd Boetticher’s seminal Western Seven Men From Now (1956), admittedly the finest the director has ever filmed, pretty much exemplifies what I consider divine filmmaking.
Check how the actors are directed and how they perform. There is no attempt to ‘express’ feelings or emotions. This is classical acting (miles away from the indulgent Method) where the burden of performance is transferred from physical behaviour of individuals to a pregnant, anxious network of glances. These skewed glances, directed sideways or off-screen, simultaneously perform the task of evoking necessary emotions as well as creating meaning through their association with whom they are directed at.
Check how the actors are positioned and framed. Each of the setups – the close-ups and the two shots – finds its proper place and generates its own tension. The two shots, even though partly the result of a necessity, consist of either Gail Russell and Randalph Scott sitting besides each other or Lee Marvin and Walter Reed, the former perched just behind and above the latter, and forebodes relationships that would become significant from here on.
Check how the whole conversation is edited. Each shot both carries the burden of the previous and prefigures what is to follow. Each one is cut just as a glance is cast and carried to a finish: long enough to register whom it is addressed to and what it means and short enough to avoid ramming down the idea or emotion down our throats. The audience’s gaze, likewise, is transferred from one actor to another in the same fluid movement, with precise vanishing points, as the chain of glances.
It would be a little helpful to know the textual background of the scene in appreciating it better. Ben Stride, an ex-Sheriff in search of a holdup gang, falls in love with Annie Greer (Russell), the wife of farmer John Greer (Reed), who is on his way to California. Bill Masters (Marvin) is a bounty hunter eyeing the money that the bank robbers possess. Stride, Masters and Greer are all antitheses to each other. The righteous, hardboiled and gentlemanly Stride is in sharp contrast to the lewd, trigger-happy and similarly lonesome, yearning Masters – one of the characteristic Boetticher-Kennedy characters of the old West with a classic morality – who scorns at the meek, soft-spoken and ‘unmanly’ nature of outsider Greer.
Consider the segment from 2’28” to 2’52”. (Although such breakdown rarely recapitulates the richness of watching the scene first hand, first time, it is interesting to examine why it works the way it works). It is made up of 5 shots – all close-ups – beginning with Masters reporting in detail how beautiful Greer’s wife is, as he stares into her eyes. Cut to Annie, visibly uncomfortable at the description, glances at her husband sitting on her right and off-screen, hinting him, with a gentle rightward tilt of her head, to intervene. Cut to a distressed John, who quickly ‘delegates’ Annie’s request to Stride, possibly the only person capable of countering Masters in this situation. Stride, though never critical of John’s timidity, is never approving of it either. A true blue Man of the West, he expects a man to speak up for his wife and, consequently, rejects John’s request, resolutely staring back at him. Cut back to John, his lowered gaze realizing what is asked of him, his gritting teeth revealing his inability to do it.
There is nothing in the script that demands such an execution. (There are a million ways to botch up the scene, not least by including great “actors”). True that the writing – and Burt Kennedy’s debut script is as terrific as they come – sets up the characters and their relationships elaborately, but it is this confluence of remarkable performances, cinematography, editing and direction lays bare the entire dynamics of the scenario with a handful of shots with ruthless precision. It is in scenes such as these – the ones between the pages and lines of a script – where Film comes to life. Standing on the shoulders of its script, the film reaches places that the former possibly can’t. To steal from Bazin, it is a question of building a secondary work with the script as foundation. In no sense is the film “comparable” to the script or “worthy” of it. It is a new aesthetic creation, the script, so to speak, multiplied by the cinema.