50s-style Western with modern tinges
Let us continue our Rock Hudson season. Rock had, as we saw last time, eschewed the six-gun and Stetson after the clunky Taza, Son of Cochise (click link for review) in 1954, preferring for the rest of the 1950s other genres and better films with Douglas Sirk. But in the early 60s he was persuaded to saddle up again – being saddled, in fact, with another big-name co-star (he did that a lot), this time the movie’s producer too, Kirk Douglas, famously not the easiest fellow to get on with on the set. Rock did manage to get top billing ahead of Kirk, though, so that was something.
Douglas hired Robert Aldrich to direct. Aldrich wasn’t too happy about it but needed the dough. I’ve never been a great fan of his Westerns. The two he had directed before this one, both in 1954, were flawed, to say the least of it. Apache, based on the novel Broncho Apache, with Burt Lancaster as a blue-eyed Indian and Jean Peters as his equally unApache wife, and Vera Cruz, yet another cartoonish gringos-in-Mexico yarn whose good Western stars, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, couldn’t save it, were not the finest examples of the genre. At all. Later, he would direct the frankly trashy Frank Sinatra vehicle 4 for Texas – though once again, it was really the star who ran things. And his last Western, in 1979, would be the toe-curlingly bad The Frisco Kid, a ‘comedy’ Western so unfunny it would be hard to invent a worse one.
There were two pictures Aldrich was involved in which saved him from Western perdition: he produced the excellent little The Ride Back, starring William Conrad and Anthony Quinn, in 1957, and he directed the outstanding Ulzana’s Raid, with Lancaster yet again, in 1972. Thank goodness, because without those two oaters Robert Aldrich would have been consigned to Western outer darkness.
Anyway, back to The Last Sunset.
Aldrich hit it off with Hudson, finding him professional and unselfish, but the Aldrich/Douglas relationship on the set was less harmonious. Basically, Kirk wanted to direct too.
Douglas is the bad guy in this one, a gunfighter on the lam, dressed all in black (actually he adopts a slinky look-at-me costume that hovers on the brink of silly), and Hudson is the lawman who is after him. Kirk had (unsurprisingly) the better part in that he was charming and charismatic while Hudson was a rather straight and world-weary, though steely and determined type.
Douglas, as far as Westerns go, is another with a mixed record (but then who isn’t, I guess). He’d started, a bit uncertainly, actually, in Along the Great Divide under Raoul Walsh in 1951, in which he looked uncomfortable, and had then done a California logging picture, The Big Trees the year after. His Western breakthrough came in the Howard Hawks-directed protoWestern The Big Sky, also in ’52, a picture which was admired in many quarters, though didn’t perform all that well at the box-office, maybe overshadowed that year by High Noon. 1955 saw him lead in The Indian Fighter with André De Toth and Man Without a Star with King Vidor, both OK, I guess. Two late-50s Westerns with John Sturges improved things. He was excellent as Doc Holliday in the huge hit Gunfight at the OK Corral in ’57 and good too as steely marshal in Last Train from Gun Hill in ’59. He did have a certain something in a Stetson.
Unusually, in The Last Sunset, Kirk was not a Colt .45 quick-draw artist. He used a derringer. As you know, derringers are usually reserved for louche gamblers, town crooks and saloon women. They 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 marksman 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 Peacemaker, it’s the Colt that wins, though for a particular reason.
There’s some very good news, though. Dorothy Malone was the leading lady. I have a real soft spot for Ms Malone (who died in 2018, aged 93). I thought she was beautiful and very good in Westerns. She could handle a derringer too, as she proved in Jack Slade when she brought one to bear in a saloon fight, blasting the bad guys. My kinda gal. 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) and Douglas and Aldrich wanted Ava Gardner but that didn’t happen either.
Counter-balancing disappointing news, though: the husband was Joseph Cotten, poor as ever (he was only good in one Western –Two Flags West) and in this one, overacting as usual, he plays a drunk, an ex-Confederate officer 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. 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 (replacing first choice Tuesday Weld) 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. 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.
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.
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 later did Kirk’s Western masterwork, 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 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.
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 there. 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 (references, references), 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.
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 (cue for music) 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, it was obligatory, although the other day we reviewed a picture, Texas Lady, which had the gunfight at high 4 pm. Not the same at all. 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, and very redolent of the mournful ‘end of the West’ theme that was so prominent at that time; the end of the West at the close of the 1950s was a kind of substitute for ‘the end of the Western’.
Naturally, Belle tries to persuade her amour(s) not to fight. She’s 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. Leone loved Vera Cruz too.
The critics have not been kind to the picture. The New York Times slammed it. Bosley Crowther wrote, “It is all exceedingly conventional. You’ll know you’ve been here before. Even the rock-studded scenery and the color look depressingly familiar and dull. The trouble simply is that Dalton Trumbo’s unoriginal script is utterly lacking distinction and Robert Aldrich’s direction is flat and slow. The actors all go through their assignments as if they were weary and bored. We don’t wonder. After only one hour’s exposure to them, we were quite weary and bored, too.”
Later, Dennis Schwartz called it “a lyrical offbeat Western filled with Sirkian melodrama.” Herb Fagen in his Encyclopedia of the Western says it is “a complicated western that includes a menagerie of sordid and pathological themes.” Brian Garfield called it “a curious grab bag of sentimental cliches and censor-baiting raciness.” He said that “Trumbo’s script is talky; the pace is erratic.”
What does Jeff think? 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. “Kirk was impossible. He knew the screenplay wasn’t right. The whole thing started badly, went on badly, ended badly. Rock Hudson of all people emerged from it more creditably than anyone. Most people don’t consider him a very accomplished actor but I found him terribly hardworking and dedicated and very serious… if everybody on that picture, from producer to writer to other actors, had approached it with the same dedication it would have been a lot better.”
But the result 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.