Friday, July 13, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Decision at Sundown (1957) at UCLA

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of this summer's Budd Boetticher series at UCLA.

The first film on the double bill was Boetticher's first film with Randolph Scott, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956). This movie is a real favorite of mine. My 2006 review was quite short but hits the high points as far as the things I admire about the film: a great cast, compact storytelling, an excellent script by Burt Kennedy, and striking locations shot in the familiar environs of Lone Pine, California.

Tonight was my first time to see SEVEN MEN FROM NOW in a theater, and I thought at times that I could see every line on Randolph Scott's weatherbeaten face thanks to the 35mm print on UCLA's huge screen. The print itself is starting to show some age, especially just before and after reel changes, but for the most part it was excellent.

It was a particular treat to see the name of Blake Lucas, a good friend of this blog, on UCLA's acknowledgments card for the work on the SEVEN MEN FROM NOW print; Blake played a key role in encouraging the film's restoration. In fact, those who watch the DVD can see him speaking in the documentary on director Boetticher.

Tonight was my first time to see the movie on the bottom half of the double bill, DECISION AT SUNDOWN.  I found it to be entertaining, if a bit odd; by film's end Charles Lang's screenplay has turned viewer expectations upside down.

As the film begins, Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) and his cheery sidekick Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) arrive in the Western town of Sundown, almost gleeful in their plans to disrupt the life of one Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) on his wedding day to Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele).

Kimbrough, it seems, did Bart's late wife Mary wrong while Bart was away at war, leading to Mary's suicide. Bart is determined to have his revenge.

The viewer begins the film completely in Bart's corner, of course, pleasurably anticipating watching him mete out justice; yet as the film goes on, the layers of Bart's psyche are peeled back to reveal a distraught, angry man who may not have as good a reason for vengeance as he believes. Bart transforms from hero to antihero, although his actions do provide the impetus for some of the townspeople, such as Morley Chase (Ray Teal), to step up and do the right thing. Scott gives an amazingly raw performance in the final scenes which certainly upped my respect for him as an actor, and I'm a longtime fan.

Boetticher's short films seem to rely strongly on unseen back story, but I found some necessary elements missing in DECISION AT SUNDOWN's 77-minute running time. For instance, the Kimbrough of the film is somewhat ineffectual, even having trouble at times obtaining the cooperation of his paid henchmen, like Swede (Andrew Duggan); how did he gain such control of the town? And why did Lucy chase after him and want to marry him?

Intriguingly, although Kimbrough's henchmen prove to be paid killers, Kimbrough himself is ultimately shown to be a fairly ordinary man who demonstrates a strange courage when it counts, having the gumption to go out and meet his possible doom despite shaking hands. He earns the viewer's grudging admiration in this sequence. Otherwise, John Carroll at times made me think more of the goofy characters he played in films like HIRED WIFE (1940) and PIERRE OF THE PLAINS (1942) than as someone powerful enough to be scary.

Although the plot was ultimately a bit of a downer, there was great pleasure in all the wonderful faces scattered throughout the film. Beery and Teal each stole their scenes, having some wonderful moments; I particularly enjoyed Teal.

The cast also included Bob Steele as one of Kimbrough's henchmen (I'm not sure he even had any dialogue!), James Westerfield as the philosophical bartender, John Litel as the father of the bride, Guy Wilkerson as the livery stable owner, John Archer as the town doctor, Valerie French as Kimbrough's mistress, and Richard Deacon as the Justice of the Peace. (Wonder how many people in the audience thought "It's Mel Cooley!" when Deacon walked in? For that matter, I'm sure many who saw Beery and Teal immediately thought of Rocky Rockford and Sheriff Coffee.)

Although I enjoyed the actors and was particularly impressed with Randolph Scott's performance, I find I like Scott flawed but a little more dependably heroic. Compared to DECISION AT SUNDOWN, I think I found greater enjoyment in the more traditional WESTBOUND (1959), the least highly regarded of the Scott-Boetticher collaborations and the only one of their films not being shown in the current series.

The film was shot by Burnett Guffey on what looked to be a studio ranch or backlot.

This film is available on DVD in the Films of Budd Boetticher set.

It also had a release on VHS.

There are plenty more Boetticher films on the UCLA schedule this summer!

2018 Update: DECISION AT SUNDOWN is now available on Blu-ray from Indicator.


Blogger The Filmatelist said...

This is one of my favorite westerns and good evidence that Boetticher managed to wrangle a lot of familiar elements and completely subvert our expectations. I think of this as the anti-"High Noon" because while some of the tropes overlap (the interrupted wedding day, the holier-than-thou sheriff, etc), the film takes us in some highly surprising directions, as was typical with the Boetticher/Scott collaborations.

3:02 PM  

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