Friday 10 July 2020

Movie Review: The Last Sunset (1961)

An astute western, The Last Sunset adds character texture, multiple romantic threads and complex themes to traditional genre elements.

In Mexico, Bren O'Malley (Kirk Douglas) rides to the ranch of Belle Breckenridge (Dorothy Malone), his lover from years ago. She is now married to the limping and bottle-dependent cattle baron John Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), and has a 15 year old daughter Melissa (Carol Lynley). Bren is honest about his intentions to win back Belle's love while Melissa quickly develops a crush on the handsome stranger, despite their age difference.

Sheriff Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) arrives at the Breckenridge ranch with a Texas-issued warrant to arrest Bren for murder. But this is also a personal pursuit, because the murder victim was Stribling's brother-in-law. Dana is immediately smitten with Belle, creating a romantic triangle. The two men agree to pause their looming showdown and help the Breckenridge family drive 1,000 head of cattle to Texas, where the fugitive and the sheriff will settle their differences.

An adaptation of a Howard Rigsby novel produced by Douglas' company Brynaprod, The Last Sunset delivers all the staples expected from a conventional western. The cattle drive as a centerpiece and transformative journey carries echoes from Red River, as does the conflict between two strong personalities at the helm. An epic fist-fight, no-good bandits (including the omnipresent Jack Elam), foul weather, stray cattle, quicksand and a run-in with a native tribe all make an appearance. 

Despite the cliches and some sticky, creaky and melodramatic moments, director Robert Aldrich keeps the action moving, aided by visually rich and colourful cinematography courtesy of Ernest Laszlo. But writer Dalton Trumbo, in a post-blacklist credit, is also interested in pushing well beyond typical genre topics. The Last Sunset features multiple elaborate romantic pursuits and two compelling women in the mother-daughter pair of Belle and Melissa, both provided with expansive arcs.

Belle finds herself at the centre of three men. Her husband is the weakest (Joseph Cotten in a thankless role), O'Malley is the fiery lover from her past and Stribling the potentially more promising and stable presence. Dorothy Malone strikes the right balance portraying a woman with a sudden range of options and a pragmatic disposition to assess them, and Belle takes her place among the more memorable women in westerns.

Melissa (nicknamed Missy by O'Malley) slowly gains presence, first as an awe-struck teenager then as a more outspoken woman-in-the-making. Carol Lynley grows into the role and asserts increasing influence as the cattle drive reaches a climax. The relationship twist in the tail is not difficult to anticipate, and Trumbo strides into dangerous territory with eyes open and an elegant ending in mind.

Douglas gave Hudson first billing, and he is fine in the lead role as a guardian of the law with a personal sting. But Douglas reserved the more intricate role for himself as Bren O'Malley, a man at the crossroads and eager to right past wrongs but still at the mercy of his character failings. He pursues a long-gone vision of Belle and is emotionally ambushed by the emergence of Missy as an eager here-and-now lover. O'Malley has to navigate away from a dark past and into a potentially impossible future.

In a relatively tangential side-story, the resolution of John Breckenridge's journey reveals the breadth of narrative ambition. His past as a confederate soldier catches up with him, and Trumbo writes a soul-destroying scene for a broken man facing the ultimate humiliation. The Last Sunset is a challenging time for men and women on the frontier, and a more than worthwhile western.

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