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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Last Sunset (1961)




In spite of story elements such as a cattle trek and a marshal on the trail of a wanted man, this is not an ordinary western, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's a low-key study of sexual obsessions, with Kirk Douglas as the good-for-nothing, but sympathetic philanderer returning to the woman he once deserted, but falling for her daughter, the spitting image of the girl he once loved.

Kirk Douglas is the man on the run, Rock Hudson the lawman in possession of a warrant to arrest him. Douglas has crossed the Mexican border and turned up at the ranch of a drunken cattleman John Beckenridge (Joseph Cotton) and his wife Belle (Dorothy Malone), who happens to be his old flame. Beckenridge offers Douglas a job as a trail boss for a drive back to where he came from, and surprisingly he accepts, probably because Belle and her blossoming daughter Missy will accompany the men. Hudson has followed Douglas into Mexico, but having no authority to arrest him on foreign soil, he joins the drive as well, planning to arrest him upon their arrival in Texas. After Belle’s husband is killed in a barroom brawl, Douglas asks for her hand, but she prefers the lawman to her former lover; Douglas then turns to her daughter Missy, who was already infatuated with him, and sleeps with the young girl. But then Belle reveals a dark secret that will change all things and lead to an emotionally devastating finale ...

* the following paragraph contains spoilers *

The movie has been described as Freudian, and with a story about sexual frustrations and neurosis, it’s hard not to think of good old Sigmund, but instead of illustrating an Oedipus complex, the story is closer to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the play that gave the Freudian complex its name. In other words, it's more Rex than Complex. The Freudian theory says that a father and a son are each other's rivals, because the son secretly desires to sleep with his mother. In Sophocles' play the son accidently kills his father and sleeps with his mother, causing the woman to kill herself, because she had not recognized her own son. The ending of The Last Sunset is a bit similar, with Douglas using an empty gun in the final duel with his opponent (Rock Hudson) after he has been told that the girl he slept with, is his own daughter.

The Last Sunset is a bit of a slow starter, and like many western from the period, it suffers from a stark contrast between good-looking, atmospheric location work (in Mexico) and unconvincing interior shots; there are also a few awkward (if funny) musical interludes (imagine Kirk Douglas singing in Spanish!). As usual, it’s the more irresponsible character of the two leads who gets most attention; Hudson’s lawman is a bit bland, but Douglas’ black-clad opportunist is a typical Aldrich character: behind their macho posturings, they often conceal a deeply insecure nature, and we sympathize with them because they’re vulnerable in spite of their bravura. In a nice example of a negative phallic symbol, Douglas wears a small derringer behind his waist belt instead of a large six shooter in a holster.

This is not a perfect movie; Dalton Trumbo’s literate script, rife with allusions and classical references, may feel a little overwrought and some thought - for good reasons - it was more drama than western (or even more melodrama than drama), but once the story picks up, and we get familiar with these odd characters, it's as compelling and fascinating as any other thing Aldrich has ever done. And note this final duel. Sergio Leone must have had it in mind when developing his ritualistic style of filming shootouts (and the build-up to them).


References:

Joseph Breuer, Peter Gay (editor), The Freud Reader, New York, 1989
Standaard Woordenboek of de Oudheid, Antwerp 1970
DVD Savant, The Last Sunset, review by Glenn Erickson

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