Decision at Sundown
Decision at Sundown
was already written when I did it, and they wanted me to do another picture; actually, when Burt and Randy and I got together, we all wanted to do another picture. So we did Decision at Sundown
from the existing script, and we tried to salvage it, and we did the best we could. - Budd Boetticher (Film Criticism
Spring 2002, p. 65)
Actually, Boetticher is selling himself short when it comes to this film. Yes, it’s script does pale in comparison to those actually written by Burt Kennedy, with it’s tin-earred and sometimes preachy dialogue, and the B-level (at best) actors who fill the supporting parts leave something to be desired. But even with those drawbacks, the film manages to weave an interesting, often unexpected tale, along with a (a)moral universe replete with disillusionment, apathy, and corruption. Think of it as somewhat like a Samuel Fuller film, but with Budd Boetticher’s leaner, more austere style (and while it may have been a function of the soundtrack, the way sound was used in the film was very interesting, especially for an American film of that period, with little underscoring or ambient noise, just long periods of almost silence; I thought it may have been the soundtrack, but when characters spoke or moved around the room it was clearly audible, so basically, the silence in the town was deafening).
This 1957 film scuttles the narrative template found in the more successful Kennedy-scripted Westerns, Seven Men From Now
and The Tall T
. Randolph Scott plays Bart Allison, who like Ben Stride, is out for vengeance; he wants to kill the man he thinks is responsible for the death (actually suicide) of his wife. The twist, which is slowly revealed throughout the course of the film, is that Mary Allison, was not the virtuous woman led astray by some rogue, while Bart fought in the Civil War (the film takes place a couple of years after the end of the Civil War; Bart, and his partner, Sam, are from Texas). Allison has come to the small Western city of Sundown to kill a man he’s never met named Tate Kimbrough, who ironically is going to be married to the daughter of one of the town’s patrons that same day.
Tate Kimbrough is the boss of Sundown; several years ago, he rode into town, and effectively took it over, while the townspeople did nothing to stop him. From his ornate hotel room, Kimbrough rules the town through his cohorts, Sheriff Swede Hansen, and his gunslinger Spanish, as well as a gang of local toughs. While he doesn’t seem to have much respect among the populace, they all fear him, and have all but resigned themselves to the corruption around them (many of them have openly profited from the corruption, though this is never really explicitly stated). A few people have resisted the corruption, like the local Doctor, but apathy and resignation rule the day (in one key scene, it is revealed that the Zaron, the local justice of the peace, who is studying to be a minister, and thus preaches temperance, is actually a secret whiskey drinker; after he is humiliated by one of the townspeople, he drinks himself into a stupor; hypocrisy runs deep in Sundown). Kimbrough himself is looking for respectability, which is why he is marrying Lucy Summerton, and while he professes to love Lucy, the woman who really loves Kimbrough is a local showgirl named Ruby James.
Bart Allison rides a stage coach to the outskirts of town, where he gets off, and meets up with his partner, and war buddy, Sam, who has been tracking Kimbrough at the behest of his friend. He knows what Allison wants to do when they find Kimbrough (though, like Allison, he’s never met him), but he does not know why. They ride into Sundown, and to their amusement, they learn of Kimbrough’s wedding. After running afoul with the sheriff at the saloon (Tate Kimbrough is buying all the drinks at the bar to celebrate his wedding, and Allison refuses to let him buy, which prompts Kimbrough’s stooges to flock menacingly around Allison; after some threats, they contemptuously drop Allison’s money in the spittoon, though this doesn’t faze the hardened Allison), they walk over to the church, to find the townspeople congregating outside. The wedding is about to begin. Allison stands at the back of the church, as the ceremony begins, and as the Justice of the Peace begins with “Does anyone know why these two shouldn’t be wed?” Allison speaks up, disrupting the ceremony, telling Lucy that if she marries Kimbrough, she’ll “be a widow by sundown.” Allison draws his guns, and walks calmly out of the church, that is until, the sheriff and his men, rush out, guns drawn. They chase Allison and Sam down the street into the livery stables, where the two of them hold up, surrounded by the Sheriff and his men. While back at the chapel, the flustered Lucy, rides off on a buckboard. An angry Kimbrough demands that Swede take Allison out, while he tries to get Lucy back for the wedding.
Like in many Boetticher films, the majority of the film takes place in small, confined spaces, and features a lot of talking. Allison and Sam are holed up in a small storage room in the livery stable, surrounded by Kimbrough’s men (and led by the Sheriff). While the standoff ensues, the townspeople who have assembled for the wedding congregate in the hotel’s saloon, drinking themselves silly on Kimbrough’s free booze, while speculating as to the fate of Allison. With the exception of some short excursions to the Summerton house (where Kimbrough tries to convince Lucy to marry him, though she is suspicious of Kimbrough due to Allison’s claims), Kimbrough’s hotel room, and a restaurant across the street from the livery stable, all of the major action for the rest of the film takes place within the confines of the stable’s storage room, the saloon, and the short stretch of street that connects the two buildings. After one botched attempt to storm the stable
, which ends with Spanish’s hand being impaled with baling hook and him being dragged headfirst through the window he was trying to enter (thus continuing the brutal violence seen in other Ranown Westerns), the situation becomes mired in stalemate, with only the Doctor (as well as Mr. Summerton, who tries to buy Allison and Sam off, and Lucy who wants to find out more about what happened to Mary Allison) being able to move freely between the two locales (Allison and Sam release the wounded Spanish to the doctor, which, in retrospect, was a mistake). As the stalemate continues, more and more information about the true nature of Mary Allison comes out, painting her in a less than desirable light (at one point, Kimbrough tells Ruby that he can’t believe this is all happening over a woman like Mary Allison). To break the stalemate, Kimbrough has Summerton and Swede convey to Allison that they can just ride out of town, without consequences, though neither Allison or Sam are very keen on this idea, as it is obviously a trap. However, once Sam learns that this trip to Sundown was motivated by Mary’s suicide, he becomes less sure of his friend’s mission, and tries to question Allison’s wisdom. This enrages Allison who strikes Sam in the face when he begins to question Mary’s virtue, and snarls for him to get out, telling him to take Kimbrough’s offer.
Sam reluctantly leaves the stable, dropping his guns, and instead of riding out of town, he crosses the street to get some food at the local restaurant, where he is met by the Doctor (and where Spanish is lurking in the back). While eating, the famished Sam fills the Doctor in on Mary’s true nature, that she was no good. After finishing his lunch, Sam gets up and starts walking back to the livery stable, telling Kimbrough’s men, who still surround the livery stable, that he’s going back to get his horse. As Sam walks across the street, Spanish leaps out from behind and shoots him in the back before being cut down himself by Allison. The outraged doctor runs out to Sam, who convinces him to try to save Allison. Allison swears vengeance on the Sheriff, though there is little he can do as he is pinned down.
But the doctor carries his outrage back to the saloon, where earlier, he had been working on the townspeople, chastising them for their apathy and willingness to tolerate corruption. Now he chides them for doing nothing as the Sheriff and his men murdered an unarmed man by shooting him in the back. He questions where there self-respect has gone, and Summerton admits that he has completely lost his. The Doctor’s rebuke motivates Morley Chase and his hired hands to take matters into their own hands. Calmly walking out of the bar, the group of men warily eye the Sheriff and his men, before disappearing around the corner, only to reappear moments later pointing there own guns at the Kimbrough’s men, evening up the odds between Swede Hansen and Allison. Left with no other choice, the Sheriff faces the angry and vengeful Allison in the street, as the assembled townspeople of Sundown look on. It’s a tense scene, especially since the Sheriff looks so scared, beginning to sweat nervously, all his earlier bravado having evaporated. It’s almost no contest, and everyone knows it, so the Sheriff is essentially walking to his own execution, and before you know it, it is over, with Hansen dead, his body crumpled in the dusty street (though as a result of one of Hansen’s shots, Allison cuts his hand on the ruins of the wagon, that he and Sam used to escape from the chapel). As the Doctor bandages his hand, he tries to tell Allison about what Sam wanted to tell him, that his wife was no good, and that this vendetta was pointless. But things have gone to far, and Allison is out for blood; and Kimbrough, watching from the safety of his hotel room knows that the only way for him to survive, and take back control of the town is to face Allison.
As Kimbrough straps his guns on, a frantic Ruby pleads with Kimbrough not to go to an almost certain death (as an audience member, I was thinking that while Allison clearly outmatches Kimbrough in terms of the gunslinging, the freak wound to Allison’s gun hand would even up the odds in the inevitable showdown). In a humanizing twist, the cool, debonair Kimbrough admits to Ruby that he is scared. Kimbrough begins the long walk to meet Allison, passing through the saloon; the drunken townspeople mock him, and are now openly contemptuous of his boasts of taking back the town. He exists the hotel into an empty street, walking slowly, eyeing the surrounding buildings nervously. Allison exists from one of the side buildings, ready to kill Kimbrough. The two meet, separated by only 10-15 feet; they stand off, and Kimbrough attempts to talk to Allison, who will have nothing of it. The tension mounts as the standoff continues, the two men poised to grab their guns, and suddenly a shot rings out and Kimbrough is hit. He falls to the ground, clutching his shoulder, both men looking confused. The camera cuts to Ruby, clutching a rifle; she shot Kimbrough to save his life, as she knew that Allison would (probably) never kill a wounded, and disarmed man. It was an unexpected twist to the gunfight, something akin, at least to me, to the final standoff in Samuel Fuller’s contemporaneous Western, Forty Guns
The film ends with a bandaged, yet very much alive, Kimbrough regarding the town somewhat wistfully (probably just glas to be alive) boarding a wagon with Ruby (happy to have her man to herself), riding off a free man. Inside the saloon, the townspeople celebrate the end to Kimbrough’s rule. Allison is inside the saloon also, standing alone at the end of the bar, curled up over a glass of whiskey. Morley Chase comes over to thank Allison for ridding the town of Kimbrough, and restoring the townspeople self-respect. The drunken Allison, with tears streaking his face, bitterly tells Chase that if they had only found their self-respect sooner, Sam would be alive, something that a humbled Chase takes into account as he leaves Allison alone. Of course, what goes unspoken is Allison’s own part in Sam’s death (dragging him along on a vendetta under false pretenses, refusing to consider Sam’s advice, and basically throwing him out of the livery stable when his support began to waver, though it never really did), but the guilt is palpable, especially on Randolph Scott’s face. Drunk and embittered, Allison rides of alone on his horse, a broken man, the illusions of his wife shattered, his best friend dead, his vendetta unfulfilled (and with the realization that nothing of this really mattered probably crushing down on him). Lucy tries to stop him, but the Doctor restrains her, telling her that what Allison did saved the town, but that there was no saving Allison. It is an ending seen in many Westerns, but few are as downbeat and realistic (in terms of psychic and physical costs) as this film.