A Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas wasn’t one to follow the beaten path during his career. He marched to his own drums, sticking to his beliefs and doing what he wanted, not what Hollywood necessarily wanted. Even though writer Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted, Douglas chose Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus in 1960. It started a streak of three movies where the duo worked together, continuing next a year later with 1961’s The Last Sunset.
Riding deep into the Mexican countryside, Bren O’Malley (Douglas), a gambler and gunfighter, is on the run, but he knows where he’s going. He rides to an isolated ranch where he finds a beautiful woman, Belle (Dorothy Malone), from his past. He fully intends to get back together with her…but she’s married. O’Malley isn’t alone though. A sheriff, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), is on his trail for a murder he’s suspected of. Stribling finally catches up with O’Malley, but the duo make an unlikely deal. Belle’s husband (Joseph Cotten) is driving a herd of cattle north to Texas. For vastly different reasons — Bren wants Belle, Dana wants justice — both men agree to help drive the herd north, their confrontation awaiting at the end of the trail. Bandits, killers, Indians and betrayals may have something to say about that.
What an odd, interesting, flawed western from director Robert Aldrich. I saw ‘Sunset’ for the last time six or seven years ago, revisiting it recently. It’s fascinating. It is a true adult western, avoiding the soap opera tendencies of so many 1950’s westerns while also avoiding going full-on dark, revisionist westerns that became prevalent late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. It manages to tread the fine line in between, a bit of a loner in the western genre.
Let’s talk nuts and bolts first. ‘Sunset’ is a visual stunner, filmed on-location in Mexico in the vein of Vera Cruz and The Wonderful Country. You feel like you’re there riding north with the herd through the jagged rock-covered mountains and dusty, sand-swept trails. The musical score is understated and has some cool, memorable notes here and there. Aldrich mixes it all together, using some incredibly interesting camera angles. A final shootout is clearly an inspiration for future spaghetti westerns. The visual look pulls you in from the start. As the story proves, this isn’t your typical western. The camerawork and film techniques are just the start.
When I say a ‘true adult western,’ I’m not saying pornographic. I mean adult issues, no-holds barred, no joking around. There is no comic relief, just major personal issues, history and hidden agendas anywhere and everywhere. Its main proponent? The unlikeliest of plot devices; the love triangle! Bren wants Belle back, Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him, Dana wants justice and he wouldn’t mind getting Belle too in the process. It isn’t light and fluffy though obviously. These lives depend on the resolution. Not everyone will make it through that resolution.
The strongest aspect of ‘Sunset’ is the pairing of Douglas and Hudson as the rivals turned unlikely trail partners. Their relationship is cautious to say the least. They’ve agreed to put off their confrontation/showdown until they reach Texas…but what’s keeping your word in a life and death matter? Their scenes together crackle with a simmering intensity. You’re waiting for one or the other to pull a gun, throw a punch, make a decisive move. The key though is how the relationship develops over the course of the drive. It might seem odd where it goes, but the whole dynamic works. Throw in Malone too who more than carries her weight. Three very solid performances, even if Hudson’s Dana seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat.
Also look for Cotten in a scene-stealing (if small) part, Carol Lynley as Belle’s teenage daughter, Regis Toomey as the ranch foreman of sorts, Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland as three treacherous trail hands, and Adam Williams as a sneering gunfighter who knew Cotten.
How about something not often associated with the western genre? Yeah, ‘Sunset’ features a doozy of a plot twist revealed in the last 25 minutes. On second viewing, that twist seems telegraphed from a mile out, but it still doesn’t take away from the impact. Ahead of its time in the actual twist, it makes for incredibly interesting viewing as all these seemingly separate storylines and characters converge. There are some slow moments on the trail getting to that point, but this is an above-average western that deserves more notoriety, more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.
The Last Sunset (1961): ***/****