Decision at Sundown

(Catch my previous Western film review here: The Tall T)

The third film in Budd Boetticher’s Western Ranown Cycle is also the second picture the director made in 1957. Like his previous picture, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown was produced by Harry Joe Brown would continue on to produce three of the remaining four pictures in the cycle. This film was Boetticher’s first collaboration with screenwriter Charles Lang who would later contribute the screenplay for one more picture in the series. But most importantly, the heroine of Decision at Sundown, was one Karen Steele who would later appear in two more films from the cycle, Ride Lonesome and Westbound as well as Boetticher’s first film after completion of the Ranown Cycle: 1960’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. 

A man named Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) and his friend Sam open the film as a pair of outlaws who have commandeered a stagecoach and forced its drivers to bring them a few miles out from a town called Sundown. From there, they ride horses into town and immediately begin to use their gifts of gab to track down a man named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) who has apparently done some wrong to Bart in the past. After asking around, they find that Tate is indeed in town, and has become something a big shot in these parts with his connections to the town’s lawmen Sheriff Swede Hansen and Deputy Spanish. Furthermore, today of all days is Tate’s wedding day and he is set to marry a young dame named Lucy Summerton (Steele) whose father’s riches are the real object of Tate’s attentions.

As Sam and Bart make their way into a barber shop and make clear their open animosity toward Tate, the aforementioned father of Lucy Summerton, Mr. Charles Summerton, is present. He runs back to tell Tate about the two seedy-looking rogues who came into town with five o’clock shadow and bad intentions. But when Summerton visits Tate, he finds him holed up in his hotel room with a young woman named Ruby James (Valerie French) who has long captured Tate’s amorous attentions, but has escaped his matrimonial intentions by being of low breeding and with no family fortune to function as a dowry. Tate is revealed here to be a player, a greedy man, and an all around jerk, though none of these attributes quite qualify the man as one deserving of death by the guns of an outlaw.

As Sam and Bart cavort around town, they make their way to the local saloon where drinks that day are all on Tate’s dime. Bart, not wishing to accrue any debts of any kind to his mortal enemy, decides to pay the barkeep instead of mooching off of Tate. But the local Sheriff, who is in Tate’s posse and pocket, dislikes this behavior. He takes Bart’s money, throws it in a spittoon, and then hocks a big one right in it. Bart keeps his cool, which throws the Sheriff into an even more hostile attitude. Unfortunately for him, Bart has broken no laws and as such, cannot and should not be subject to any brute force by the sheriff’s hands. Sheriff Swede leaves in disgust, much to the pleasure of the barkeep who openly dislikes Tate and all of his ilk.

After depositing their horses at a local stable, Sam and Bart meet the town Doctor, one Mr. Storrow, who also admits that he dislikes Tate and what he and his friends have done to his town. When time for the wedding comes around, the doctor attends arm in arm with Ruby James as a visual sort of protest. Bart enters the chapel with his gun, and instead of pumping Tate full of lead right there and then, he speaks up when given the chance during the ceremony (‘Speak now or forever hold your peace.’) and promises to kill Tate before sundown that evening. He also warns Lucy not to marry the man as she will surely be a widow the following morning.

The concept sounds good in theory, but in practice going to a wedding and making such big proclamations about planning to kill the groom don’t go over so well. The Sheriff and his Deputy follow Sam and Bart out, pick up their guns at the door, and end up trapping the two men inside the stables where a stand-off occurs for hours on end. Eventually, Deputy Spanish makes his move and tries to enter the room from a window, only to have his gun arm hacked into with a large meat hook. Sam and Bart spare his life, the doctor arrives and heals him up, and as time carries on, the townsfolk begin to realize that this moment might be their only chance to rest back their town from the likes of Sheriff Swede and Tate Kimbrough.

After an egregious event in which Sam leaves the stable to give up and is shot down in cold blood by the Swede, the Doctor, the barkeep, a local ranch owner Morley Chase and his boys arrest and disarm all of the Sheriff’s men and local militia who have the stable surrounded. The Sheriff is then forced to take on Bart Allison mano e mano, which ends in the former’s death. And then, only Tate is left.

By this point in the film, there have been mentions of Bart’s reasons for wanting to kill Tate. We learn that Tate screwed Bart’s wife Mary years ago while he was away on a trip. Mary killed herself some time thereafter and Bart blamed Tate who he thought had raped his wife and left her with the requisite psychical trauma to go and off herself like she’d done. It is slowly revealed that in fact, Mary was a loose woman and was seeing men like Tate behind Bart’s back all the time. Moreover, she was so difficult to reign in not because of some mere moral defect, but because she suffered from some sort of psycho-sexual disorder that also pushed her toward suicide. As Bart learns of this reality, he ends up leaving Tate alive, though the townsfolk cast him out of Sundown nonetheless, and they champion Bart as a hero.

Unlike the traditional Western with its clear black and white distinctions, here we have only obfuscation. Tate is no devil in disguise. No, he is a man with a sordid past and a charming demeanor who finds it easy to woo women, and just so happened to woo the wrong one. Bart is no true hero vanquishing evil from a town for the benefit of the good townsfolk. He is bent upon revenge based on mistaken assumptions about a past event. And he couldn’t ultimately give a damn about the well-being of the town itself. Neither man is totally evil, and neither is unrepentantly good. They are real people, populating one of the most realistic Western scenarios wherein gunslingers are not gods with inhuman reflexes working in the name of one metaphysical entity or another, but human beings, flawed and weak-natured as any others.

 

Cody Ward

[Up next: Buchanan Rides Alone]

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