Western RoundUp: Seven Ways From Sundown (1960)
Murphy plays the awkwardly named Seven Ways From Sundown Jones, who reports for work at a Texas Rangers office headed by Lt. Herly (Kenneth Tobey).
Jones is something of a green kid, who joined up after his older brother Two’s death while serving with the Rangers; Jones is great with a rifle but inexperienced using a handgun. Despite Jones’s dubious qualifications for frontier law enforcement, the short-staffed Lt. Herly sends Seven out to capture the dangerous outlaw — and ace shot — Jim Flood (Barry Sullivan).
Jones is aided by Sgt. Henessey (John McIntire), who tries to quickly teach Jones what he knows, especially how to handle a sidearm. Circumstances lead to Jones ultimately striking out on his own after Flood, and he proves to be more resourceful than anyone expects, capturing Flood and fending off Flood’s attempts to escape.
As Jones and Flood get to know one another on the trail back to Texas, an uneasy respect develops; they rather enjoy one another’s company, but Jones has a job to do…and he’s also unaware of a critical fact: Flood killed his older brother Two.
Soon Jones and Flood have additional problems, dealing with Apache Indians as well as men who want to take Flood in for the reward, and they don’t care if they have to kill Jones to do it.
Seven Ways From Sundown is a top Murphy Western thanks to a good cast and a sharp, well-paced script by Clair Huffaker, based on his own novel.
There’s a very nice, typically excellent supporting turn by McIntire, but the majority of the film features Murphy and Sullivan front and center, and they really strike sparks together. The two men have a relationship in the film which is quite reminiscent of Murphy and Dan Duryea in one of Murphy’s best earlier films, Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), but at the same time, Murphy and Sullivan create something unique which allows the film to stand on its own as a superior Murphy film.
This was Murphy’s 20th Western, but despite a dozen years in films and being in his mid-30s, he still has the looks of an innocent “kid.” Henessy worries that his boss Lt. Herly is going to send the young man to an early death, but Henessy argues he’s short on men and has no choice — and anyway, Jones signed up for the job so oh, well! Little do we know at that early point that Herly may have ulterior motives in assigning the job to Jones and that he would not be terribly upset were Jones to fail.
One of the interesting aspects of Murphy’s film persona, well illustrated in this film, is that while he is typically rather quiet and seems on the young side, there’s also an interesting undercurrent of danger. I’ve recently come across critics who say that Murphy wasn’t tough on-screen or a particularly good actor, which causes me to feel baffled; it seems as though we’re watching two different men! A Murphy character like Jones may be a nice, honorable guy as well as a bit of a greenhorn, but he’s also a dangerous man when crossed. Just take a look at what happens to Flood when he meets up with Jones and a hunk of wood.
Moreover, Murphy is the kind of actor I watch closely because he tends to communicate a great deal with body language; I feel that some critics mistake Murphy’s style, emphasizing subtlety over showiness, as not being good acting. Murphy could more than hold his own opposite the best in the business, including Sullivan and McIntire in this picture, and is compelling at all times.
In contrast to the “business” side of his persona, Jones is awkward and tongue-tied around pretty young Joy (Venetia Stevenson), whose mother (Mary Field) runs a boarding house, but despite that Joy is drawn to Jones like a fly to honey. There’s a cute scene where Joy communicates her interest in Jones, repeatedly attributing her feelings and concerns to her mother, but it’s clear what’s meant and that Jones reciprocates.
Stevenson and Murphy are said by some sources to have begun an offscreen affair after meeting on this film. Stevenson was born into the business — her father was director Robert Stevenson and her mother actress Anna Lee (Fort Apache); she had previously been briefly married to Russ Tamblyn, and she would later marry Don Everly of the Everly Bros. She had recently appeared in another notable Western, Day of the Outlaw (1959), which I wrote about here in 2018.
Jones has little time to get to know Joy due to his assignment to bring in Flood, and the chase for the bad man ensues, over locations in Utah and Nevada, filmed in widescreen by Ellis Carter.
Sullivan’s smart, funny, and slightly regretful outlaw calls to mind not only Duryea’s earlier role opposite Murphy, but some of the best villains from the “Ranown” Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott; Sullivan’s Flood is a character on a par with Ranown villains such as Lee Marvin from Seven Men From Now (1956) — the title similarity is interesting! — and Richard Boone in The Tall T (1957).
Sullivan excelled at playing this type of rogue; one of his best previous parts was as an accused criminal in the Western Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957), where his character proves to have more common sense and courage than some of the ostensible “good guys.”
In this film, Sullivan’s Flood tries to lure Jones to hitting the trail with him, but he’s also clearly not surprised that Jones remains an upright man of the law. Flood ends up taking Jones’s side against the foes they meet along the trail, and when the time comes for the ultimate reckoning, Flood tips the scales in the favor of Jones, a man he’s come to respect.
The excellent cast includes familiar Western faces such as Ken Lynch and Don Haggerty. It was the second film for Don Collier, who got into films after working on a ranch owned by actor Francis Lederer; Collier’s best-known role was playing Sam, the ranch foreman on TV’s The High Chaparral (1967-71). Little Teddy Rooney, who appears in a couple of scenes midway into the film, was the son of Mickey Rooney and Martha Vickers.
Seven Ways From Sundown was directed by Harry Keller, whose previous Westerns included a strong Fred MacMurray film, Quantez (1957); Keller later directed Murphy in another Western, Six Black Horses (1962). Keller does a good job balancing brisk pacing with revealing character moments and some excellent bits of action.
Like so many Audie Murphy Westerns, Seven Ways From Sundown has yet to have a U.S. Region 1 DVD or Blu-ray release, though it’s available on a Region 2 release in Europe. The film turns up periodically on cable TV and is well worth seeking out. I hope readers who are unfamiliar with this Western will enjoy it, and I’d love to hear about additional favorite Audie Murphy Westerns in the comments!
— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.