Decision at Sundown (1957) Revisited


decision-at-sundown1957The fifth review in my on and off series of revisits to the Ranown cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown (1957) was the third they made together. If you don’t look at the year of release for signs are how young the films in is terms of the two men’s work/progression they are still very much in the confines of the studio back-lot, very traditional and safe in terms of setting. Not yet fully in Lone Pine as we find which they first visit in films such as Westbound (1959) which allows for a true sense of isolation to come into these tense and introspective films. We’ve been out there once already in The Tall T (1957) we know what these two are capable of.

Saying that there is a strong sense of isolation in the town of Sundown. It’s an odd beginning, as a stagecoach is held up, simply to let passenger Bart Allison (Scott) off and catch-up with his partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) his sidekick almost who has stood-by him through a lot. Maybe the audience’s supposed to be thrown by this outburst of violence before simply riding off? It acts as a jolt, this is not the Scott of previous films, he’s not playing the straight forward hero. Even in the Ranown cycle he’s usually the hero with a darker side to him. Here he has a single purpose which he sticks rigidly too, there’s little deviation to even look after a woman whose trapped in a bad situation. His woman was killed three years previously. We are seeing another side to the same character we later see in Comanche Station (1960) and Ride Lonesome (1959) who has more compassion.

The two strange men who ride into town cause trouble everywhere they go, not the kind of trouble that results of death and destruction, rather creating an atmosphere of unease among the towns-people. Allison is making his presence known before the big-wedding and showdown which is sure to follow. We have yet to even meet the much talked about Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) is even seen on-screen, building him as this dangerous man who has killed his fair-share of people before owning the town of Sundown that he now owns. When we finally meet him we discover that even though he’s to marry one woman, he’s spending more time and enjoying it with another Ruby James (Valerie French) who herself is questioning her relationship. I found John Carroll to be a much cheaper imitation of Clark Gable, tall, dark but not so handsome even classically, maybe that’s the intention, Gable never played men with a dark ulterior motive or the villain.

So having establish what the film is about, a bit of context surrounding the previous film, the cannon of the actor and directors work together lets focus more on the plot. Again it’s a short film which allows things to move rather fast. Down to mainly the budget again, it’s a lot tighter, something which you can lose with a bigger more one. The town all learn of Allison’s presence at the wedding, the classic line of any man speaking of a reason why these two people should not marry or forever hold their peace. Said more out of tradition today, used more for drama on-screen, used perfectly here when Allison interrupts, he doesn’t care for the respect of the church, so driven for personal justice he carries his gun into the church, for protection and warning for Kimbrough to react. We have the whole town here, bearing witness to this threat against the man who owns the town. Another powerful figure who will have to fight to hold onto his place. Having them in the palm of his hand for two years, he even pays for their drinks at the saloon.

It’s not long until Allison and Sam are holding up in the livery stable, not the open main space with the horse where there is more places to hide. instead the more confined space of the owners back-room, where they could both spend the remainder of the film as they’re surrounded by Sheriff Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan) who is the towns owned sheriff, a coward with a badge on who sends other to do his work. The law enforcement’s an extension of Kimbrough’s hold over the town. Aptly named Sundown, which we never see, as the events take course over the day, its more metaphorical for the gunfight’s that take place during the day that determine the course other town will next take.

Allison being driven by revenge is also deafened not blinded by the truth that Sam has to tell him about his wife, it eventually divides them. But why did Sam hold onto this secret about Allison’s wife for so long? He couldn’t bear to tell him for the fearing the damage it may do, shatter the image he holds his wife in. It’s the case believing the legend and not the fact, a powerful idea out in the west. Breaking that ideal is hard to stomach, the legend or ideal of a person we hold can be far stronger than the truth.

As the two men continue to fight, the hold of Kimbrough loosens in the town, reality is slipping back as men start to discuss what they have lost, lead by the towns doctor John Storrow (John Archer) who had always seen beyond his gestures of good will to see the real man. One who had emasculated a town, what made them strong had all but gone. It’s a film about learning and understand the truths that we hide ourselves from. It takes the strongest of men to ride into town acting like a man, wanting to settle a score to show a town full of them to see what they had lost in themselves. Not the rights and powers, the feeling of being a man. It’s an idea that has not so contemporary, the idea of a man is now more sensitive, more open to his feelings than bottling them up. We all can hide from the truth if we choose to. Scott, one of the epitome’s of the western man turns that on its head, is unable to deal with the truth until the end of the film.

Sumarising where I am in my journey through the Ranown Cycle I can see that if the story is strong enough as it is here, do we really always needed the rugged outdoors of Lone Pine to set our stories against. The cast was far larger than those film, there is still a focus on characters and a number of them too. Scott is able delve into the inner reaches of what is possible with man in as few words as possible.

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