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Friday, December 12, 2014

Decision at Sundown (1957)



Dir: Budd Boetticher - Cast: Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Valerie French, Noah Beery Jr., Andrew Duggan, John Archer

Decision at Sundown is an atypical entry in the Ranown Cycle, the series of collaborations of the duo Boetticher-Scott. It’s a revenge movie, Scott looking for the murderer of his wife, but it does not concentrate on the journey, but on the destination. For three years Scott has been looking for Tate Kimbrough, the man he holds responsible for the suicide of his wife Mary, and now his friend Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) has located him in the town of Sundown. All cards seem on the table when Bart Allison rides into the town, but there’s a problem: it’s Kimbrough’s wedding day, and even a man as determined as Bart Allison, feels he’ll have to postpone the execution, at least until the wedding ceremony is over.

Allison’s announcement that Mrs. Kimbrough will be a widow by sundown causes a lot of discomfort among the townspeople; Kimbrough had virtually taken over their town and some of them think this is the moment to regain their dignity by standing up against him. Moreover Kimbrough’s bride to be (Barbara Steele) starts having second thoughts about the marriage (could Tate really be a heartless swindler?). But it isn’t an easy afternoon for Allison either: when Sam reveals the truth about what happened between Mary and Tate, he must accept she was to blame for it, not Tate; there are even indications that Allison was aware of his wife’s infidelity but had chosen to disregard Mary’s dubious conduct.

The film sets out as a straightforward revenge movie, but it goes in a direction you don’t really expect it to go, with a hero who’s not really a hero and a villain who is not as bad as we thought he was. Bart Allison is one of Boetticher’s darkest heroes, an obsessed man, consumed by the thought of revenge to the point of madness: even when he can no longer deny the truth, he still wants revenge (like Glenn Erisson has pointed out, the movie could easily be remade with Scott as the villain instead of the hero). The villain, Tate Kimbrough, becomes more human as the story progresses, almost sympathetic, but he just can’t give up his old habits: when Allison arrives in Sundown, he’s about to marry a woman he doesn’t really love, giving a cold shoulder to the saloon girl Ruby, his long-time mistress and the true love of his live.

Few fans of the director count Decison at Sundown among his very best work; the script by Charles Lang (who also scripted Buchanan Rides Alone) is cleverly constructed, but the drama feels a bit forced. The surprise ending - Ruby talking (and shooting) some sense into these two pigheaded fools - is most certainly different, it actually keeps surprising you, even if you’ve seen it before. It also makes up for some of the misogynist tendencies of the script. John Carroll is believable as the not so villainous ladies' man, but I’m not sure how younger viewers will react to the character, and especially his looks. Carroll’s character is a Don Juan of the Clark Gable type and apparently these types of guys where considered to be irresistible to women back then, but I wonder if there are still many women who think Gable and Carrol are attractive. The times they are a’ changing, and so are we.

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