14 March 2009

Movie review: The Last Sunset

The Last Sunset (1961)
Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotten, Carol Lynley, Neville Brand, Jack Elam.

I haven’t reviewed a Western in a spell. This is morally wrong, and I apologize.

The Last Sunset, like director Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, had an immense affect on the Italian Western filmmakers of the next decade. Specifically, it guided Sergio Leone in creating the legendary showdown between Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, which is perhaps the greatest Western duel ever filmed.

But The Last Sunset comes with its own powerful pedigree: a famous director, a big-name cast, and future black-list hero Dalton Trumbo on the screenplay. Plus, it has a dark sexual angle that’s daring for its day.

Bren O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) has fled from an ambitious lawman, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), into Mexico. Stribling wants to see O’Malley hang because he shot his brother-in-law, leading his sister to hang herself. O’Malley chooses to stay with Belle Breckenridge (Dorothy Malone), whom he loved years ago, and agrees to serve as a gunman on a cattle drive for her sodden husband John (Joseph Cotten, who appears to be actually drunk). Stribling joins the cattle drive to keep a watch over O’Malley, since he has no power to enforce his warrant until they cross into the U.S.

O’Malley still loves Belle, but during the cattle drive she begins to fall for the aggressive advances of Stribling. Her sixteen-year-old daughter Melissa (Carol Lynley) gets it bad for O’Malley, and as it becomes clearer that he will never have his old love back, O’Malley begins to reciprocate toward the beautiful teenager girl.

You can probably guess where this is going.

Yes, you’re correct. In fact, I had Melissa pegged as O’Malley’s daughter from the start, long before Belle decides to tell O’Malley the truth. This is a Robert Aldrich film, after all, and crazed, ugly things like this always happen in Aldrich films. This is the fellow who directed Kiss Me, Deadly and The Dirty Dozen, after all.

A good example: a scene of O’Malley nearly strangling the ranch collie to death in a delusional fury of sexual frustration. It’s a perfect Kirk Douglas snarl moment, although he plays O’Malley more subdued than some of his hammier roles. But it sums up the brewing tension and brutality inherent in most of Aldrich’s characters. That this scene comes right before a romantic conversation between O’Malley and the girl he doesn’t know is his daughter makes it even weirder.

It’s unfortunate that the memory of Rock Hudson has gotten shoehorned into two niches: Doris Day’s romantic foil, and tragic icon of the early AIDS epidemic. Yet this movie shows a Rock Hudson I don’t often hear about, the square-jawed tough guy ideally suited to the Western, handsome but with an edge of ugly danger always about to erupt. He adds a moral ambiguity to his performance that plays well with Douglas’s more traditionally drawn good-bad guy.

The final showdown is a classic, and it’s no wonder Sergio Leone took inspiration from it. The suspense build, use of space and camera angles, and editing is sublime, and the aftermath drives home great Aldrichian tragedy.

I wonder if other film writers have ever used the word “Aldrichian.” I like the way it sounds.

In a direct connection to Once Upon a Time in the West, Jack Elam appears in a brief part as one of those effortlessly ghastly villains he could play in Westerns so brilliantly. Elam has a small but memorable role in Leone’s film as one of the three killers waiting at the train station for the arrival of Charles Bronson.

Although it has good performances, an astonishing finale, and the demented sexual angle, The Last Sunset is middling for Robert Aldrich, and certainly below the quality of Vera Cruz and Ulzana’s Raid. The middle sags too much, and I’ll admit that I’ve never enjoyed cattle drive-based stories (Red River is a big exception), and this drive drags. Trumbo’s script also employs overlong dialogue exchanges that get too deep into philosophy and feel twice as long as necessary. The weird discussion between O’Malley and Melissa about God is a strange one, although it does contain the odd, memorable line when Melissa asks “Don’t you like God?” (Based on the rest of the film, I would say the god in this movie certainly doesn’t like O’Malley. I would like to ask Melissa which god she means; I’m guessing it’s Ares.) The sequence where some of the hands on the drive try to take over feels like a pointless detour to rustle up some action.

The DVD is part of a Rock Hudson disk collection and also contains the 1953 Arabian adventure film The Golden Blade.