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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.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Time for Killing (1967)




Dir: Phil Karlson, Roger Corman - Cast: Inger Stevens, Glenn Ford, George Hamilton, Paul Petersen, Timothy Carey, Kenneth Tobey, Harry Dean Stanton, Harrison Ford

Made in 1967, this movie never had a fair chance; in Europe it was washed away by the flood of spaghetti westerns, at home it was dismissed by critics for both its shortcomings (which are obvious) and its brutalities. The project was started under a different title, A Long Ride Home (still used in some markets), and was to be directed by Roger Corman. Some sources mention that Corman was replaced before shooting started, others sustain that he left the production halfway through, after he had clashed with actor George Hamilton over the movie’s infamous rape scene (1). Colombia hired Phil Karlson, who had done the Matt Helm movie The Silencers for them, to finish the movie.

A Time for Killing is part of a series of westerns concentrating on the conflicts of Union troops and their Confederate prisoners in the final days of the Civil War. It’s quite unique in the sense that no real possibility of reconciliation is suggested. In the opening scene a Confederate prisoner, still a teenager, is sentenced to death for having killed a guard during an unsuccessful attempt to escape. The firing squad is replaced by a group of orderlies, no trained marksman who only manage to wound the young man. It’s therefore up to major Wolcott (Ford) to finish the job. It’s a cruel and grotesque scene, reflecting the bleak and pessimistic vision on war (and mankind) that will be unfolded in the remainder of the film.

Knowing that the war is about to end, major Wollcott, an honorable man, promises the prisoners that similar things won’t happen again when they give up any possible  escape attempts. The prisoners seem to respond positively to this offer, but a vindictive Confederate officer Bentley (Hamilton) organizes a mass escape. Wolcott is blamed for what happened and ordered to lead the pursuit party, and things get even more personal for him when Bentley kidnaps his bride to be, the missionary woman Emily (Stevens). After several attempts to shake off Wolcott, Bentley rapes Emily in the desert and flies to Mexico. At this point things have gone too far, for all persons concerned: it’s actually Emily who asks Wollcott to cross the Mexican border and hunt down the maniac who scandalized her …

With a Confederate officer who refuses to give up the fight and a bleak, downbeat ending, we’re not far removed from the insane world of Corbucci’s The Hellbenders, made one year earlier. We’re also close to Peckinpah’s depiction of the post-civil war society in Major Dundee: a world torn apart, inhabited by frustrated people who may descend into violence and madness at any minute. The flaws of A Time for Killing are many: the editing is choppy and the film often feels jumpy, as if scenes are missing (the running time of a mere 88 minutes suggest there might have been some pre-release tampering). There’s some ‘Fordian’ comic relief which seems even more out of place here than in Ford’s own movies, and there’s also too much Hollywood sentimentality of men deploring their situation and expressing their wish to return home (referring to the film’s original title, A Long Ride Home).

Brutally violent (although not as sadistic as The Hunting Party, which it most probably inspired), A Time for Killing is not great, but I found it more rewarding than many American westerns of the same period. Western fans should give it a try. Look quickly for Harry Dean Stanton and a very young Harrison Ford: he’s the heavily side-burned Union soldier who give some assistance during the execution scene.

Note:

* (1) Robert Towne was originally hired to script the movie (from the novel The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford) and Monte Hellman was signed on as editor. Hellman told his biographer Brad Stevens that het he worked several weeks on the movie, and then resigned to show his sympathy with Corman, so it seems unlikely that Corman was replaced before shooting started. See: Brad Stevens, Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, p. 71