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This Universal disc of The Last Sunset has been out for over a year. I only heard about it from a helpful reader about three months ago, which just proves yet again that nothing DVD-related can sneak by Savant, cough, cough. The 1961 western is yet another eccentric Robert Aldrich opus, a cattle drive western made not with his Associates and Aldrich company but through Kirk Douglas's Bryna film outfit. Technically, it's really the middle film in a Douglas - Dalton Trumbo trilogy. America's most vocal blacklisted writer did this after Kirk Baby's Spartacus and immediately before the low-budget favorite Lonely Are the Brave, the modern oater where Kirk and his horse lose a duel with a truck full of toilets. The Last Sunset is interesting because of its (for 1961) kinky script. To discuss that I'll have to deal in spoilers, which will be clearly marked.
Robert Aldrich seemed naturally drawn to genre films and controversial subject matter. His Attack! is a war movie about mutiny in the rank and file. Apache comes out in favor of Indian rights, even though the native American in question is a renegade 'terrorist'. The Last Sunset is one of many Aldrich films with an apocalyptic attitude, at least in its title: World for Ransom, Ten Seconds to Hell, The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah. The apocalypse here spells potential doom for Kirk Douglas's spirited outlaw Bren O'Malley, an irresponsible fellow suddenly trapped by a crisis of personal identity.(begin spoilers)
Aldrich's uncomfortable Joan Crawford film Autumn Leaves already introduced a rather creepy sub-theme of incest with its Lorne Greene character. The Last Sunset makes the same situation into a suicidal game for Bren O'Malley. Bren tries to convince his old flame Belle that she's really the same girl he left years ago, wearing a yellow dress to her first party. Belle tells him she's pushing forty, has a grown chlild and has no interest in returning to her childhood, when she was a different person altogether.
Crestfallen when Belle gravitates to the more wholesome and principled Dana Stribling, Bren turns to young Melissa, who is already infatuated with him. At the party celebrating the crossing of the Rio Grande, Melissa turns up in Mom's old yellow dress, and Bren's resistance crumbles. They plan to run away, after he settles his legal dispute with Dana.
The cattle drive north is bolstered with one of those 'delayed showdown' gimmicks that shows up in a number of westerns. Bren and Dana maintain a gentlemanly truce on the way to Texas, mainly so as not to lose face with the womenfolk. But everything about Bren is a little perverse. He dresses in an official "Kirk Douglas' outfit of tight fitting black shirt and pants (which return in The War Wagon and The Villain), and he packs not a six-gun but a derringer pistol tucked into his waistbelt. The use of this dinky gun makes the final showdown seem rather one-sided. Bren takes John Breckenridge's cattle drive job with two conditions: he gets 20% of the herd, and he takes Belle at the end of the drive. The besotted Breckenridge just laughs when he hears this, and says, fine! Belle doesn't seem to have an opinion about it either.(real spoiler here)
The big revelation in The Last Sunset comes when Belle stops Bren from running off with Melissa, by telling him that Melissa is his daughter. As the ages match up and Melissa indeed resembles him, Bren has no choice but to accept this as the truth. He's immediately in a bind. Eloping is now out of the question. Melissa will be equally destroyed if Bren tells her that she's illegitimate. Bren solves his problem the way one of Jean-Pierre Melville's existential gangsters might -- he unloads his derringer and uses the showdown with Dana to commit suicide. Instead of bidding Melissa goodbye, Bren plays the brave martyr and tells her he'll be right back after he deals with Sheriff Dana. True, as soon as the characters are introduced in The Last Sunset it's easy enough to guess what's going on: rule #1 of drama says that any child of a woman with a past lover, is that lover's offspring. Trumbo's script makes the whole setup seem a weird dead-end: no particular lesson is conveyed, unless Bren O'Malley is paying his generalized karmic debt all at once. He doesn't act guilty, just trapped in a tough spot. 3(end spoiler)
Trumbo, Aldrich and Douglas's attempt to make the next 'hot topic' movie didn't pan out; The Last Sunset came and went without even leaving a hit song, like Douglas's Town Without Pity of the same year. Pity was a yet more shocking film about a German girl raped by U.S. soldiers, who finds her reputation destroyed. It wasn't a breakthrough hit either.
Aldrich is an uneven director. The Last Sunset shows him in good control of his actors, especially Dorothy Malone. The supporting players (Jack Elam, Neville Brand) aren't well integrated into the story and suffer as a result; as a western the film is light on action. Only the final showdown generates tension, and even that is muted. The emphasis is all on the Bren O'Malley character. The shaky production alternates between authentic Mexican locations 1 and unconvincing interior sets. Kirk rides up in broad daylight, and the film cuts to a matching interior/exterior set where a dog throws two distinct shadows. Night exteriors often show big sags in the blue cyclorama, or the sky coming to a 'corner' in the middle of a shot. Continuity is also weaker than usual in many Aldrich films, with Michael Luciano's cutting frequently falling short of good matching ... which is only distracting when it's distracting. The Last Sunset is one of those movies we watch to enjoy the bizarre storyline -- this is one strange western.
In The Last Sunset's favor, it isn't all 'strange on the range' (to quote Leonard Maltin). One charming scene has Rock Hudson showing Carole Lynley how to make an orphaned calf 'bond' with her, by breathing into its nose. Lynley looks charmed as she complies, and then has a dutiful 'daughter' calf following her about.
Universal's DVD of The Last Sunset is one of five features in a very economical three-disc Rock Hudson collection. He's okay in the movie but it's really Kirk Baby's show all the way. The enhanced transfer varies between slightly faded red scenes and others with excellent color. The show concludes with a showdown at sunset, which starts with a shot of the sun on the horizon but then continues with many cuts obviously taken at high noon. We don't know whether the gross discontinuity is the result of bad work on Aldrich's part, or a bad transfer. It's possible that the videotape timers are at fault, if they ignored the time-of-day cue. But I don't know if original prints re-timed the whole sequence for dusk. Whatever the reason, much of the drama of the final "last sunset" is diminished. 2
Audio is good, although nothing saves the gawdawful scene where Douglas sings in Spanish. He pronounces half the words as if they were Italian, while the Mexican musicians behind him do their best not to crack up. The only extra is a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Sunset rates:
2. I've seen this kind of sloppy mistiming ruining other movies. Just a few months ago Fox put out 1960's The Lost World, a tepid adventure distinguished by brilliant Winton Hoch photography. But the telecine people didn't make the effort to even listen to an audio track to hear what time of day scenes were supposed to be: a major effects scene that once took place in brilliant sunset colors now alternates between rich interiors and flat exteriors is now timed, like The Last Sunset, for high noon. A good 'look' was almost all that The Lost World had, but it doesn't have it any more.
Dear Glenn: "Trumbo's script makes the whole setup seem a weird dead-end: no particular lesson is conveyed, unless Bren O'Malley is paying his generalized karmic debt all at once. He doesn't act guilty, just trapped in a tough spot."
This is exactly why this movie has stuck with me for all these years. Bren finally has to ante up -- his predicament dictates that he perform the curiously redemptive act of self-immolation (After all, Kirk Douglas would have to have both arms in slings in order for us to believe that Rock Hudson could outdraw him). It is what it is: the story may be obvious to us, but it is fascinatingly, tortuously unclear to its bewildered characters. This is genuine perversity, of course, and I've always wondered whether Universal had originally acquired the source material with Douglas Sirk in mind (and, of course, U contract star and Sirk vet Malone seems the only actress who could play Belle). Sirk's sensibility could have turned the story on end. Intriguingly, Trumbo and Aldrich seem to embrace it, and see Douglas as less a villain than an anti-hero who performs a climactic single act of decency, however twisted. I hope Hudson was paid well for this -- it's Kirk's show all the way.
It is indeed Durango. Aldrich sold himself as a wholly dedicated director to Douglas, willing to do anything to make Sunset work... and the actor went berserk when he noticed the filmmaker brought other screenwriters down to the location to work on future projects. As to the discontinuity issues, I remember the IB Technicolor print I saw as quite handsome -- and even TV prints made the sunset look something like a sunset -- but throughout his career Aldrich was notorious for his apparent disinterest in consistently matching lighting and color from shot to shot, particularly in exteriors. I believe the director would have been happier if he had been able to shoot all of his movies in black and white. Best, Always. -- B.
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