The Last Sunset (1961) Revisited
I’ve been looking for this Western for a while now, catching it originally a few years ago and not completely understanding the subtleties of this actually quite dark film. Not on a Fordian scale, or even that of Budd Boetticher, we are returning to the murky realms of Robert Aldrich who could move from genre to genre with ease. Here in The Last Sunset (1961) he pits two leading men of Hollywood against each other. From the opening titles, if you look carefully, the same landscapes covered by two riders, taking the same path. We don’t tend to see that unless there is a chase midway into a film. It’s a chance for a double take, to question the audience attention to what is going on, to look beyond the surface of the image we are given.
We learn that Brendan ‘Bren’ O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is on the run but in no real hurry. In fact he’s enjoying the chase, riding into the Brenkenridge Ranch, meeting Belle (Dorothy Malone) who lets him stay the night, O’Malley as like many of Douglas’s roles are neither good or bad, he’s elusive, charming with a dark streak that he carries it all off with a little too much confidence. With his time on-screen first we believe he’s the good guy as much as you can if you are familiar with Douglas’s past roles. Building up the role of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) who is after him. Instead of going into hiding he encourages John Brekenridge (Joseph Cotten) to take him on to lead his cattle North to Texas.
On the face if it we have a cattle drive with rivals who are waiting to kill each other, it’s anything but just that or we would have this film today, it would be a run of the mill Western that would have long been forgotten. If we under the surface we have a yearning in O’Malley for the past, an old flame in Belle who knows why he’s back. Making a deal with John for a 5th of the herd, and his wife. A very unusual deal to strike, luckily struck as John’s an alcoholic and a coward whose walked all over.
Add to that the 16-year-old daughter Melissa ‘Missy’ (Carol Lynley) who believes she’s a woman at her young age. Perceived as such in Mexico so acts that way. It’s not questioned by those around her. It’s not long for her to start falling O’Malley who at first has no interest. Cinematically this is a very dark area, even for the early 60’s leaning towards underage sex, is played innocently on-screen. O’Malley does little to encourage her. Its only when a seed that’s planted earlier in the film’s brought to light, a yellow dress that O’Malley last saw her mother at the same/similar age in that dress. Producing feelings in O’Malley to transfer his emotions from mother to daughter.
Yet the first half of the film there is a love-triangle form between O’Malley, Belle and Stribling, as John is blissfully unaware and drunk. Played by Cotten who I thought would be out-of-place, however its an interesting choice that pays off, the older man, a Confederate veteran who has a secret history of cowardice that has taken the form of alcoholism, he’s respected however by all in his company. Stribling doesn’t make a move on Belle, leaving him to fend of O’Malley who takes any chance he can get, again ignoring the admiring Missy. O’Malley taunts Belle, whistling a tune that’s repeated throughout, a motif that plays on our minds and that of Belle.
The Last Sunset’s filled with psychologically conflicted characters who are placed into this cattle drive which is not a jolly affair, darker than Tom Dunsons in Red River (1948) that sees two very different men pitted against each other. However 13 years later the Western has changed so much in that time. Good and evil becomes blurred here so they can live alongside each other for so long before the warrant that was originally raised can be fulfilled. Stribling having been made a deputy to ensure he can get justice for his sister. Even that isn’t black and white as we later find out.
The final twists which I had completely forgotten hit me as fresh as it would have originally. Maybe I should wait this long again to watch it (4 years I think?). Its a dramatic twist, the possibility that O’Malley might be Missy’s father. It would make sense. Of course there is no way to prove this, it’s down to belief alone that soon hits home for him. Leading up to a classic, fast paced edited showdown that leaves us on the edge of our seats. It’s a unique Western, much like others by Aldrich who also gave us to takes on the gunfight at the OK Corral and that’s just to begin with. He adds a psychological depth and uncertainty to his work they aren’t just a standard genre film.