50s-style Western with modern tinges
I reviewed The Last Sunset back in July 2010 but I watched it again yesterday and I’d like to revise my opinions somewhat.
I’ve never been a great fan of the Westerns of Robert Aldrich (left). He was involved in one capacity or another with eight or nine (depending on your definition of a Western). One he directed was absolutely outstanding. I am thinking of Ulzana’s Raid with Burt Lancaster (one of Aldrich’s favorite actors). That was a superbly written, directed and acted movie, a fine Western. I am also fond of The Ride Back, a film he produced, directed by his sort-of protégé Allen Miner, a minor B-Western in many ways but beautifully done, with William Conrad and Anthony Quinn both excellent. But, for me anyway, that was all she wrote. Vera Cruz, a 1954 blockbuster which Aldrich directed and which was co-produced by Lancaster, has its admirers but I am not one, despite its starring Gary Cooper (and Lancaster). It’s an overblown farrago and actually, I think, rather cynical. Lancaster as a blue-eyed Bronco Apache was less than convincing in Apache the same year, a rather plodding picture. 4 for Texas, a Sinatra vehicle of 1963, was very bad indeed, junk, in fact, directed and acted in a slapdash way and neither funny nor even properly Western. And Aldrich’s last Western, The Frisco Kid, was among the worst I have ever seen, toe-curlingly, embarrassingly awful.
The Last Sunset, however, falls in the middle. It’s not dreadful but it’s not all that good either, though it has its points.
It pairs Rock Hudson with Kirk Douglas. Not so much Kirk, but Rock often did Westerns in harness with another big name, rather than starring on his own. Bend of the River with James Stewart, Horizons West with Robert Ryan, The Undefeated with John Wayne, Showdown with Dean Martin, he ‘did’ co-stars. Hudson didn’t do that many Westerns (11, again depending on your definition) but the ones he did were pretty good, and he was directed in them by the likes of Anthony Mann (twice), Budd Boetticher (twice) and Raoul Walsh (twice), as well as by Aldrich. He rode well, was good as a tough guy and, I thought, convinced in the genre.
Rock is the tough-guy lawman
As for Douglas, he had started in our noble genre not altogether convincingly, in Along the Great Divide (also with Walsh), had done The Big Trees and The Big Sky, the latter with Howard Hawks, The Indian Fighter (André de Toth) and Man Without a Star (King Vidor), and had been directed twice by John Sturges in the late 50s in Westerns (Gunfight at the OK Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill) before doing this one, so he was pretty experienced in the genre. His late Westerns would drop off in quality but he too had a certain something with a Stetson and a gun.
In this one that pistol wasn’t a Colt .45 but, unusually for a gunman, a derringer (so you may imagine that earned the movie another revolver from Jeff). It’s an unusual gun for a goody, or even for a semi-goody as here, usually being reserved for louche gamblers, town crooks and saloon women, though of course you can think of the odd exception – John Wayne had one in Big Jake (it saved his grandson) and even Marshal Randolph Scott got a villain with one in A Lawless Street, and you don’t get goodier than that. Still, usually derringers were sneaky little pop guns, and an odd choice for a gunslinger. Kirk explains in the dialogue that no handgun is accurate at more than twenty feet anyway and a derringer packs a bigger slug. Mmm. I think if two gunmen are facing off in a showdown at twenty feet, the one with a derringer is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. There used to be a video on YouTube, since removed I think, in which an expert hit a target with only one of the two shots at 15 yards, and (just) hit twice at seven yards. Still, it makes a change. When Kirk does finally face off with Rock and his Colt .45, it’s the Colt that wins, though for a particular reason.
Douglas went for a slinky look-at-me all-black costume that hovers on the brink of silly.
Gunfighter with a derringer
Aldrich hit it off with Hudson, finding him professional and unselfish, but the Aldrich/Douglas relationship on the set was less harmonious. The picture was a Bryna Productions one. Bryna (named for Douglas’s mother) was Kirk’s company. He had set it up in 1955, inspired by the success of Burt Lancaster in moving into production. So Douglas felt proprietary towards the picture and that Aldrich was his employee. This didn’t go down well with Aldrich.
Producer, cinematographer, director - all was not sweetness and light
Dorothy Malone was the leading lady. I have a real soft spot for Ms. Malone (who died last year, aged 93). I thought she was beautiful and very good in Westerns. I would mention specially Colorado Territory with Joel McCrea (Walsh again), The Nevadan and Tall Man Riding with Randolph Scott, Jack Slade with Mark Stevens (she saved Jack with a derringer in that one), The Lone Gun with George Montgomery, At Gunpoint and Quantez with Fred MacMurray, and Warlock with Widmark, Quinn and Fonda – it’s a pretty impressive list. In The Last Sunset she plays an ex-flame of Kirk’s who falls for Rock. Once her hubby is dead, anyway. Lauren Bacall apparently turned down the role, disliking the subject matter (see below under daring).
Always excellent, good here too
The husband was Joseph Cotten, poor as ever (he was only good in one Western -Two Flags West) and in this one he plays a drunk, an ex-Confederate office who ran away at Fredericksburg. He is shot to death in a squalid cantina, freeing up Dorothy to get lovey-dovey with Rock and improving the picture by being written out mid-way. I’m being unkind. He wasn’t that bad. He just seems to overact. He would overdo the drunk again as Major Reno in The Great Sioux Massacre a few years later. Actually, I think it’s hard to play a drunk convincingly in a movie. Thomas Mitchell did it well (and quite often) but then he was a recovering alcoholic. IMDb tells us that Cotten brought all his own food and water from the States to the shoot in Mexico, but it was to no avail. He was the first of the film crew to fall sick.
Also in the cast is the young Carol Lynley as Malone’s daughter. She looks a lot like her ‘mother’, in fact. She is supposed to be fifteen, a girl on the threshold of womanhood, and she does it rather well (she was in fact 17). This part of the plot is rather daring because she falls for the dashing gunman in black (Douglas). He at first treats her as a little girl but comes to reciprocate her passion. The film wasn’t risqué enough to have the couple consummate their desire (it was made in 1959 Hollywood after all) but they do kiss, then there are oblique references to suggest more. We are on the very verge of creepy here. Of course it turns out that the girl is his daughter (she manages to look also vaguely like him) and this shocks Kirk’s character to the core, as it would, of course. The picture was also known as El Perdido. In some ways this is more of a family tragedy than a Western.
Neither knows but…
Pretty little girl in a yellow dress
And further down the cast list we have the joy of spotting Neville Brand and Jack Elam as cowhand/crooks, and the excellent Jackboy as Jackboy, the dog. I also rather liked Margarito Luna and José Torvay as the Mexican ranch hands (rather disgracefully uncredited). They had an almost Greek-chorus role. They could sing a sight better than Kirk, too.
Excellent bad guys
So the cast is pretty strong.
It’s a good-looking picture, with nice Eastman Color photography of attractive Sonora and Durango locations (most of the picture is set in Mexico) by Ernest Laszlo, whom Aldrich used on four of his Westerns.
The music, by Ernest Gold, is also well done. The main theme was by Dimitri Tiomkin and the variations on Pretty Little Girl in the Yellow Dress are often delightful.
The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, who had the best name in the world (Dalton Trumbo) and worked quite a lot with Kirk, notably on Spartacus, and he also did Kirk's superb contemporary Western Lonely Are the Brave. For The Last Sunset he used a 1957 pulp novel by Vechel Howard, aka Howard Rigsby, Sundown at Crazy Horse (the plot climaxes in Crazy Horse, Texas, on the Rio Grande).
The source novel
The story is not the most plausible, it must be said, but they kinda get away with it. Trumbo was simultaneously working on Exodus for Otto Preminger so may have been a bit distracted.
Briefly, Brendan O'Malley (Douglas) arrives at the Breckinridge ranch (Cotten's Mr. Breckinridge is away) and tries to rekindle the flame with Belle Breckenridge (Malone), but she will have none of it. Is there a hint of The Searchers as O'Malley rides up to the dusty home? A mysterious stranger is following and closing in on him. It’s Texas lawman Dana Stribling (Hudson). Kirk killed his younger sis’s husband, and then the woman committed suicide, so Rock has an axe to grind. O'Malley and Stribling are both alpha males and we know right away that a showdown is inevitable. They are both good with their respective guns. Douglas is the charismatic rogue playing against Hudson’s very straight good guy.
But they both agree to take Cotten’s herd up to Texas (this is another rather improbable bit) and delay their moment of truth till they get to Texas. So it becomes a cattle-drive Western, and I must say the cattle shots aren’t at all bad – they had a decent number of steers. On the way, the obligatory dangers occur: you know, Indians, dust storms, rustlers, stampede, etc. You can’t have a cattle-drive picture without those. Kirk sings round the campfire. Rock doesn’t.
At one point Stribling is stuck in quicksand but O'Malley can’t let him die, even though he’s going to try to kill him later. It would be against the Western code. Stribling's poor horse is a goner, though.
When the cowhands mutiny and threaten to sell the women to the Dutchman in Vera Cruz, O'Malley saves the girl (enhancing her love for him still further) while Stribling saves Belle. O'Malley is jealous but he can’t prevent it: Stribling and Belle are falling in lerve.
They cross the Rio Grande into Texas
Arriving at the Rio Grande, they decided to have a fiesta and in a key scene the daughter appears in her mother’s yellow dress, and indeed looks very beautiful and very womanly.
But now they are at the end of the drive, so Stribling tells O'Malley, “I’ll come for you at sundown.” Showdowns had to be at certain dramatic moments of the day, dawn, noon, sundown, etc., although the other day we reviewed a picture, Texas Lady, which had the gunfight at high 4 pm. Perhaps Aldrich should have called the picture The Last Sundown. At any rate he makes much of the symbolic going down of the sun, although the showdown was actually shot with the sun high, confusingly. Talking of titles, it is said that Universal considered the hilariously bad The Magnificent Two, The Majestic Brutes and Seething Guns. The final choice was good, though.
Naturally, Belle tries to persuade her amour(s) not to fight. She’d read The Virginian. But equally naturally, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. The showdown slightly foreshadows Once Upon a Time in the West as the protagonists tensely circle to the strains of electric guitar, though of course it is not taken to such extreme lengths (Leone favored the ad absurdam approach). Actually, Aldrich worked with Leone on Sodom and Gomorrah and the Italian greatly admired the American.
This picture has its flaws. But it also has its strong points. It was by no means the worst Western of Aldrich, Hudson or Douglas. Aldrich called the filming "an extremely unpleasant experience", and claimed that the script needed more work. He added, “It all started badly, continued badly and ended badly. Kirk Douglas was impossible.” But it isn’t that bad. Though it came out in the post-Magnificent Seven early 1960s, it was shot in ’59 and in fact is in many ways a 50s Western, though it has modern cinematic touches. Occasionally clichéd, it is also often interesting and different.