When it’s on: Friday, 15 May (11.00 am)
Film4 are screening two Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations today – Decision at Sundown, and later Ride Lonesome, which was covered on these pages here. The films have gained in reputation over the years, thanks to Boetticher’s economical approach and an attempt to subvert conventions within the genre. The latter element is, I think important. It’s easy for someone like me to dip into Westerns of the 1950s, its ‘golden age’, and enjoy some classic cinema, but experiencing it at the time must have been quite a different story – Westerns in theatres, Westerns on television, in paperback, on the radio. People ask why the Western movie faded and I wonder if perhaps it simply suffered from saturation. How often was the same story told? How many times was it a case of black hats fighting white hats? For every enduring classic, there must have been a hundred Oaters, so I suggest that by the end of the decade it was more or less exhausted.
The closest current parallel that I can think of is the superhero movie, which makes sense given the advances in photo-realistic special effects allowing those comic book panels to come to gaudy life. I like a decent Marvel flick as much as the next viewer, but I admit I’m getting bored with it all and find something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier to be a breath of fresh air just because it tries to tell a more complicated story than the hackneyed Good versus Evil caper. And even here, with the genre threading its tentacles through television schedules as well as on the big screen, it doesn’t come close to hitting the vast number of Westerns that were being churned out in the fifties.
In a long winded way, that’s my explanation why the Boetticher-Scott films are always worth watching. There are layers of psychological depth here, people you assume to be good who turn out to carry serious shades of grey, villains who emerge as sympathetic, even if they’re still essentially flawed human beings. It’s particularly powerful in Decision at Sundown because the protagonist is played by Randolph Scott, which almost has the viewer instantly thinking ‘right, there’s my hero’ as that’s the character he played. Sure enough Scott’s character, Bart Allison, cuts the archetype – stoical, rangy, weathered, austere use of speech. He refuses to accept a free drink at Sundown’s saloon because he doesn’t like the man who’s paying the tab. All wounded nobility, the impression being that some terrible wrong has been committed, he’s here to right it and he’s justified in doing so.
Or so it seems. Allison has been pursuing Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) for some years and finally tracks him down to the town of Sundown, where he’s set himself up as the boss. Sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) is firmly in his pocket, and he’s about to marry heiress Lucy Steele (Karen Steele) in order to cement his status as the main man. Together with his sidekick Sam (Noah Beery Jr), Allison doesn’t let the fact it’s Kimbrough’s wedding day stop him from attempting to kill him. Soon enough, he and Sam are under siege in the town’s stable, the Sheriff is trying to figure a way to smoke him out, and Sundown’s citizens, oppressed for years by Kimbrough’s regime, are too weak to intervene.
Allison’s motivation is of course revenge; years before, Kimbrough had an affair with his wife and this led to her committing suicide. It’s clear also that Kimbrough hasn’t learned his lesson, carrying on with blousey Ruby (Valerie French) on the very morning he’s getting married. All straightforward enough, but here the picture begins to blur. Sam knows that Allison’s late wife was far from a saint, a point hammered home as the plot develops, leaving his reasons for retribution muddy and confused. Indeed, Scott’s character starts to look increasingly pathetic, building to a booze-addled conclusion when he’s ‘won’ but celebrating a very Pyrrhic victory and appearing to have aged dramatically. At the same time, Kimbrough redeems himself when he resolves to face Allison, knowing it likely means his own death yet standing up to his fate all the same. Perhaps the only real winners are the people of Sundown, who, led by the altruistic doctor (John Archer) come to assert their own authority. By the end, there’s a sense of everyone getting what’s coming to them.
The criticism of Decision at Sundown rests in its script, by Charles Lang, who eschews the more favoured Boetticher Lone Pine locations (as covered by his more celebrated collaborator, Burt Kennedy) for a film set mainly indoors. Boetticher himself wasn’t a fan, believing the story to revolve less around Scott than it should and only taking the job to help the actor complete a commitment with Warner Brothers. Certainly, it looks like what it is – a B Picture with little money behind it – without the director’s talent at papering over the cracks by filming expansive landscape shots. But I think the closed-in feel, the claustrophobia of Allison holed up and alone, works rather well, reflecting his narrow vision and the compressing reality of the truth.
Certainly, I quite enjoy seeing Scott play someone other than the straight guy, not to mention the twists and turns of the plot throwing out a slew of moral ambiguities. Perhaps Decision at Sundown is a film ahead of its time. Like all ‘Ranown’ (RANdolph Scott + producer Harry Joe BrOWN) films, it runs for fewer than eighty minutes, packs in welters of plot, hardly wastes a single shot and doesn’t come close to outstaying its welcome.
Decision at Sundown: ***