Thursday, October 11, 2012

Budd Boetticher | Decision at Sundown

speaking up
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Lang (screenplay, based on a story by Vernon L. Fluharty), Budd Boetticher (director) Decision at Sundown / 1957

 The seven films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott made between 1956 and 1960 are Westerns that behave like few other Western films. It’s hard describe what is so different about these works; like most Westerns they feature a character that might be described as a “hero,” sometimes with a sidekick as in Decision at Sundown, and villains. There are horses, gunplay, rough desert landscapes, small Western towns, even Indians. There is often a saloon, a tough saloon moll, as in this film, and rigid sense of code that the hero is determined to uphold. On the surface Boetticher’s works sound perfectly in sync with the genre. Yet his films are significantly different.

First of all the hero seldom behaves with the direct fortitude and surety of characters played, for example, by John Wayne. Wayne’s heroes generally know what they’re doing or, at least, what they’re trying to do, while Randolph Scott’s heroes, in this case Bart Allison, seem to be acting out of years of pain and vengeance based on the death of friends or, in this work and at least one other film, the wrongful death of his wife.

     Decision in Showdown begins rather strangely with Allison riding in a stagecoach, which he suddenly shanghaies, rifle in hand. For a few minutes the stage coach driver, his partner, and Allison seem almost confused as they wait for each other to act. Is Allison pulling a robbery? Is he suddenly determined to take over the coach? Boetticher simply keeps us in suspense until, finally, Allison’s partner, Sam (the humorous Noah Beery) comes riding forward with a second horse. Quite inexplicably, Allison bids the others farewell and rides off.

     Sam apparently has been scouting out the small town of Sundown, discovering the town is controlled by a ruthless businessman, Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), with whom, apparently, Allison has old business; we recognize immediately that he intends to kill him, we simply don’t know why. By coincidence this day is also the celebration of Kimbrough’s wedding, and despite Sam’s complaining empty stomach, Allison is determined to feed the horses, get a shave, and attend the wedding to which he has clearly not been invited.

     When the justice of the peace asks if anyone has objections to the marriage at the church, Allison immediately speaks up, hinting at the despicable nature of Kimbrough and suggesting to Kimbrough’s soon-to-be bride, Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele), that he is saving her from being married to a man who will soon be dead. In short, Allison walks right into the serpent’s nest, stirring up the group of men obviously under Kimbrough’s thumb, and, as he an Sam attempt to leave the church they are chased into the livery stable in a gunfight that most Westerns would save for the end.

      Accordingly, the hero and his friend are immediately locked up in a sense, and one finds it hard to make sense of Allison’s actions. As Sam, himself, suggests:

                         Sam: You just stood up in church and told Kimbrough 
                                   you was goin’ to kill him? Bart, you must be 
                                   plum crazy!
                         Bart: I’m doin’ this my own way, Sam. For three years 
                                  I’ve  hunted Kimbrough, but he didn’t know it. 
                                  Before I settle with him, I want him to know he’s
                                  bein’ hunted
                         Sam: [after a bullet shot through the window whistles near
                                  Sam’s head] You ain’t huntin’ him no more. He’s huntin’

Once again, Boetticher has turned the usual Western conventions on their head. The hero is all but captured after just a few frames.

     Yet perhaps Allison knows human behavior better than most. By simply speaking out, he commences a series of human reactions, beginning with Lucy’s decision to think for a while before marrying Kimbrough. Kimbrough’s former girlfriend, Ruby James (Valerie French) returns to him, while Kimbrough demands Sheriff Hansen move in on Allison. Hansen and his men are fearful of a direct assault, knowing that it might end in their deaths. Another deputy has already tried to climb in a window, resulting in his forearm being opened with a grapple hook. The doctor (John Archer) is called to provide him with iodine (Bart quipping: “Ain’t it lucky you brought the iodine, Doc?”).

     The two are offered freedom to leave if they ride out of town, an offer which the still-hungry Sam is only too willing to take. As he leaves his friend behind, having suddenly discovered that Allison’s revenge is based by Kimbrough’s affair with his wife, Mary, he attempts to reason with Allison, explaining that Mary was perhaps not the woman Allison saw her as. The comment ends in Allison slugging Sam. After a lunch in the nearby café, Sam is shot and killed by the Sheriff and his friends, the promise of release obviously being a lie.

     Suddenly the citizens camped out in the bar, witness to the murder, begin to realize that the man they have passively supported, Kimbrough, is a deceiver. The quietude they have for long maintained begins to raise feelings of guilt in many of them, and one group, in particular, attempts to make the fight between the Sheriff and Allison a fairer one by removing his deputies.

     A showdown between the two ends with the Sherriff’s death.

     Kimbrough is at his wit’s end, unable to remove the man from destroying his wedding day and possibly ruining his position in Sundown, while afraid to confront the man himself. Lucy herself visits Allison, repeating, in a different form, Sam’s assessment of Allison’s former wife:

                        Lucy: Look, when you’re in love the way you must have 
                                  been, the truth isn’t an easy thing to face up to. 
                                  No man, including Tate Kimbrough, can take 
                                  another man’s wife away him unless she really 
                                  wants to be taken. So maybe you didn’t lose 
                                   anything that was really very worthwhile.

Once more, the comment ends in a kind of violence, she slapping his face, he spanking her ass.       

     By the time Kimbrough has decided to face down Allison himself, his reputation, along with his power, has been destroyed. After a few drinks, he heads to the street to be met by Allison, but before Allison can kill him, Ruby—still in love with Kimbrough—wounds her lover in the arm with a rifle, thus saving him from Allison’s wrath.

One can hardly imagine a movie that ends with the “hero,” still angry over the long ago events, being met by the villain, Kimbrough, now on his way out of town. Everything has shifted, the citizens now ready and willing to retake the responsibilities for their community, vaguely hoping that they can somehow show their appreciation to the intruder.

     Always the loner, Allison refuses their gestures of good will, throwing his whisky into the saloon mirror. As he turns to also leave town, Lucy and the Doctor speak for everyone:

                                    Lucy: John, we just can’t let him ride away. If it wasn’t
                                              For him….
                                    Doc: Yes, he changed things for everybody in town. But,
                                             unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do for him.

 Seldom has a Western ended in a world so relativistic, with a hero who can help everyone but himself. His values, strangely, were perhaps the right ones provoked by the wrong situations. Accordingly, while moral values have been restored to Sundown, at sunup Allison will only be faced by a deeper quandary wherein justice, as he knows it, can no longer be served and wherein he himself has been duped by an innocent pride.

Los Angeles, October 10, 2012



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