Wednesday, December 3, 2008


It's Tate Kimbrough's wedding day in the little town of Sundown, and he's treating the town to drinks. People are coming in from all over for the event, but not all are well-wishers. Dr. John Storrow ("Doc") isn't fond of the groom, nor is Morley Chase the rancher. Nor is Ruby the town trollop happy to see Tate marry Lucy Summerton; she considers herself his girl, but he urges her not to sit in the front pew at the wedding. Finally the bride is walked down the aisle, and Rev. Zaron makes the customary call for anyone who might object to the wedding.

Bart Allison objects. He's been lurking around town all day with his sidekick Sam, badmouthing Tate and telling anyone who'll listen that Lucy's "making a big mistake" marrying the man. He's made an enemy out of sheriff Swede Hansen by refusing to drink Tate's health. Now he confronts Tate. "We never laid eyes on each other before today," he says, "and we're not strangers....Remember Sabine Pass?" Tate claims not to, but Bart calls him out, warning Lucy that "If you marry this man you'll be a widow before sundown" and paying Zaron in advance for Tate's funeral. He and Sam exit just ahead of an impromptu posse.

The remainder of Decision at Sundown shifts from Bart and Sam holed up in a stable and Tate's situation deteriorating outside. This is the third collaboration between actor-producer Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher, and the second included in Sony's "Collector's Choice" box set. Scott and Boetticher (and co-producer Harry Joe Brown) made B-level "adult" or "psychological" westerns in the mode of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart. Many critics now consider Scott and Boetticher the peers of the more prestigious team, and this movie is strong evidence for that argument. Here's how Columbia Pictures tried to sell it to western fans at the time of its original release.

Well, if "a new kind of hero" means hardly a hero at all, Bart Allison definitely qualifies. He's certainly on the "vengeance trail," but Scott, Boetticher, and writer Charles Lang are on a subversive mission of their own to challenge the legitimacy of Allison's agenda. They don't show their hand immediately. We're inclined to take people's word for it that Tate Kimbrough is a villain who has, in Doc's opinion, destroyed Sundown. How he's done it is unclear, but we're probably supposed to presume that he's a gambler or pimp. Our instinct as moviegoers is to root for Bart to take Tate down. But under siege, Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) begins to question Bart's vendetta. Worse, he only now seems to understand that his friend has pursued Kimbrough for three years for no better reason than that Kimbrough seduced Bart's wife, Mary. When Lucy Summerton, trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff, suggests that Bart's grievance doesn't justify killing anyone, Bart harshly throws her out of the stable, making Sam more incredulous. When he suggests that Lucy has a point, then tells Bart that "Mary wasn't the girl you thought she was," Allison hauls off and decks him. We assume from what Sam tells Doc later that Mary was a tramp who finally killed herself "on account of the way she was, there was nothing else she could do," -- but Allison can't accept this. He's become fanatical about revenge in a way that goes deeper and darker than Stewart's vendetta against his brother in Mann's Winchester 73. When Swede's men kill Sam, Bart is beside himself with rage. Randolph Scott is one of the typical laconic western stars of his era, but here he works himself up to the closest he could probably get to hysteria. He's less righteous than self-righteous when he kills Swede to avenge Sam. Meanwhile, we're still waiting for the ultimate payoff: the showdown between Bart and Tate.

To this point, Tate Kimbrough has been the schemer and manipulator, sending others out to deal with Allison by any means necessary. For the final act, we get the moment that appears to be characteristic of the Scott-Boetticher films, in which the villain is humanized. He has every opportunity to flee Sundown and leave Allison to his fate. Ruby's urging him to flee with her, but Tate decides that survival means more than merely staying alive. Admitting that he's scared, and needing liquid courage to fortify himself, he decides to end the crisis by calling Allison out, even while enemies like Doc and Morley taunt him and tell him he's finished no matter what happens. Fairly or not, he compares favorably with Swede, whom everyone (including Tate) had called a coward for his reluctance to storm the stable or do anything without overwhelming force on his side. Now the viewer is ready to concede that Tate is capable of honor as he goes out alone to face someone who has increasingly appeared like a maniac.

Boetticher's team has set us up for a scene that's a climax and an anticlimax at the same time, in which the denial of expectations can prove perhaps more devastating than anything we expected. In genre terms, good has won, the town is redeemed, but Bart Allison isn't. Here, at least, I think Scott and Boetticher surpass Stewart and Mann. The latter pair usually had their hero back away from the abyss and find hope or redemption with some woman. But in Decision at Sundown Scott's character is denied satisfaction or closure, and while he doesn't do the worst he could, he leaves the town that now celebrates him a ruined man, with Doc concluding, "There's nothing anyone can do for him."

Decision at Sundown looks like it had a lower budget than the previous film, The Tall T. Except for an opening sequence on the road to Sundown, it all goes down on a standard western town set, or inside the stable where Bart and Sam are besieged. While it lacks the dramatic landscapes of The Tall T, this film shows off Boetticher's forceful efficiency as a visual storyteller and Lang's ability to suggest rounded, complex characters with quick strokes. It's all done in 78 minutes and doesn't need to be any longer. The screenplay has a whiff of misogyny to it, or else it leaves you wondering whether it would have been okay for Bart to kill Tate if Mary hadn't been a tramp, but that only slightly mars the overall effect. Randolph Scott gives what for him must have been a very brave performance, and as both actor and producer he reminds me of Clint Eastwood in his willingness to subvert genre expectations and his own heroic image. The supporting cast has few familiar names (though Richard "Mel Cooley" Deacon is unsettling to look at as the alcoholic minister in the middle of a personal meltdown), but all acquit themselves well. The DVD looks good except for the grainy titles, and features an introduction to the film by Taylor Hackford. For me, so far, the box set is two for two with three to go.

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