Wednesday 30 September 2020

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop reviews DIRT MUSIC (Gregor Jordan, UK/Australia, 2019))

Tim Winton

I read
 Dirt Music on a long-haul flight. I couldn’t stop, didn’t sleep and held the book above my head as flight assistants delivered food and took away trays.

It’s Tim Winton at his most exhilarating. His evocation of time, place and characters seemed perfectly realized and the novel felt as quintessentially white Australian as an Arthur Streeton landscape. 

Dirt Music won the Miles Franklin in 2002 and was short-listed for the Booker.

Phillip Noyce first picked up the film rights and at various times, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger and Rachel Weisz were suggested for the lead roles.

Years passed and Noyce struggled: 

I could never get a script that I thought captured the poetry of the novel and there’s the problem. A poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie”. 

He abandoned the project, but if ever an Australian novel needed the locally-informed attentions of the Phillip Noyce of Newsfront, Winton’s novel was it.

Many more years passed before a UK/Australian co-production was announced in 2017. 

A seasoned local producer describes it as: “…an official co-production…developed by the UK producers…I would expect Australia is the minority”. 

Let’s imagine for a moment that Ian McEwan’s Booker-shortlisted, quintessentially British novel Atonement is developed by Australian producers and launched as an Australian/UK co-production. 

Seven of the 12 producers come from Australia and the British are minority partners. 

Australian and American actors are cast as McEwan’s two Cambridge-educated Brits (replacing Keira Knightley and James McAvoy) and an Australian screenwriter adapts the novel. 

What could possibly go wrong?

That’s pretty much the scenario for this UK/Australian co-production of Dirt Music

A Scot and an American are cast as Aussie locals in Winton’s Western Australian fishing community; seven of the 12 producers are British; and the prolific British film and television writer Jack Thorne (Enola HolmesThe Secret Garden) has written the screenplay. Other key creatives are mostly British – except for direction, cinematography and costumes.

What could possibly go right? 

Not much, as it turns out.

In 2017, Jason Clarke and Rachel Weisz were to head the cast, but by the time the film went into production in October 2018, neither Clarke nor Weisz were involved and nor were any Australian actors in the two leading roles. 

How would the American Garrett Hedlund and the Scottish Kelly Macdonald manage with Winton’s broadly sketched Australian characters? 

In the novel, Georgie Jutland is raised in Perth private schools and yacht clubs and has abandoned a nursing career. She now considers herself a fishwife, a “lobster moll” and is in a relationship with Jim Buckridge, a successful professional fisherman: “people with a million dollars’ worth of boat…a new Landcruiser and six weeks in Bali every season”.

The lapsed musician Lu Fox is brooding, solitary and broken by considerable family tragedy. He scratches out his living in the dark of night poaching fish and lobster from the likes of Jim Buckridge. 

Georgie, in turn, decides to poach Lu.

Considering whom they are playing, Macdonald and Hedlund do quite well at flattening their accents, but that’s the best they can manage. 

Up against the accents of real Australian actors such as David Wenham, Aaron Pederson and Dan Wyllie, they sound, to an Australia ear, wholly unconvincing.  

Macdonald, well known in the UK for the television dramas Line of Duty and The Victim, has one very accomplished acting mode and it serves her well, but there’s little range beyond that.

"...American Garrett Hedlund and the Scottish Kelly MacDonald..." 

Garrett Hedlund is hardly a marquee-draw in the USA and barely memorable in Netflix’s Triple Frontier and Mudbound. He’s certainly not a Ledger, a Crowe, or a Clarke and has seriously misjudged this role, completely failing to generate any of Lu Fox’s essential charisma.

It’s not the first-time screen adaptations of Winton have fallen short. If his characters share one trait, it’s their troubled interiors, their doubts, their guilts and their struggles to find shelter from their storms. 

It takes real acting skills to carry this off and here, David Wenham is the only one who comes close.

It doesn’t help that much of the book is missing. Lu’s hitchhiking journey into The Kimberley in surfer wagons, road trains and caravans with crippled stoners, gruff rednecks and grey nomads is mostly not there. 

In the novel, one of Lu’s great encounters on this journey is with Horrie and his wife Bessie, who is dying of bowel cancer and refusing any treatment. Horrie is driving her in his beat-up Nissen Patrol into the confounding immensity of The Kimberley so she can “sail off the edge of world” listening to Arvo Pärt: “it’s death music. Arvo in the arvo”. 

It’s one of many sad, inexplicable omissions by the English scriptwriter Jack Thorne. Gone also are the nuances of Georgie’s family, particularly her sisters and one attempted suicide. 

The lost material seems designed to cut the film down to a flattened love triangle and the textured feel of Winton’s interlocking stories has been abandoned. The result is bloodless, lacking all the intensity and soul of the novel.

Not so much unfilmable, as filmmakers floundering with a novel beyond their abilities.

Nothing symbolizes this better than the “dirt music” itself. Described as music “people play on their verandas”, Winton, with former ABC presenter Lucky Oceans, compiled two excellent CDs of “dirt music” (CD cover above) to complement the book. Yet the music we hear is such a pale imitation of what Winton intended, you’d be forgiven for cringing if you heard it piped into an elevator.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas writing in Overland sums it up: “This is a book that, when adapted to film, had the very life sucked out of it with what felt like almost clinical determination”.

The only outstanding elements are Sam Chiplin’s cinematography and whoever was responsible for choosing the Esperance and Kimberley locations. 

Major opportunity missed. 

Poor Fellow My Country.

Streaming on Netflix- David Hare admires Ryan Murphy's new series RATCHED (USA, 2020)

Sarah Paulson, Ratched

Where Ryan Murphy’s  Hollywood  drove me to despair with what felt like constant misappropriations and sub-standard campery in the way it referenced his “Old Hollywood”, his new series Ratched, co-written with Evan Romansky from Ken Kesey's novel, is an emblem of total fusion of style with content.

Ep 1 sweeps along with a dazzling mise-en-scene and superlative performances from basically everyone with costumes and art direction to die for. Watching this in Dolby Vision 4K with sound to match is almost like Hitchcock in Technicolor resurrected into a world of high end camp- luxe. Although it goes much wider with its meta-cinematic quotes. Just as another Bernard Hermann score grab (from Marnie here) swells up on the soundtrack, Murphy pulls the camera into a steadicam long take down one of the many Kubrickian corridors with a Shining quote that merges into a Vertigo quote as Murphy swings the lighting and color filter from green to yellow to ice cold as Mildred departs the scene of her seduction into suicide of one of the madhouse’s most unhappy clients.
For the first time Murphy’s sense of humor works for me, I suspect because he flawlessly honors and paces his references, while fully evoking the originals by embellishing them with the most glamorous colour and design I think I have seen in a TV series, at least since Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce rebirthing. 

I am looking forward to seeing how he manages the lobotomy sequence in tonight’s ep. His opening master sequence of the mass killing of the house full of priests had me laughing aloud, even while I was wondering how far he could go. Then he went there. Every last drop of loathing for a childhood of sufffering at the hands of these wretched, meddling clerics was emptied onto the screen with gallons of stage blood and the first of so many Bernard Hermann quotes, now from Psycho of course.

Editor's Note: The hot link on HOLLYWOOD in the first para takes you to a post by John Baxter about the series.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Books For Sale by Australian writers and Film Alert Contributors - Links to purchase E-Books and hard copies of publications by Peter Tammer, John Baxter, Tom Ryan, Geoff Mayer, David Stratton and Barrie Pattison,

Amazing to ponder that the Film Alert blog has posted a good deal of writing by some of Australia's best known critics and scholars.

Here is a rundown of publications currently available through various websites and in  various formats.

PETER TAMMER - POLES APART: The Search for Truth in Cinema - Commenced as a series of articles about the early origins of documentary cinema studying The Lumiere Bros, Robert Flaherty and Frank Hurley. Now comprehensively revised and rewritten with multiple live links to the very scenes being discussed. Now for sale as an e-book for $5.00. Click on this link to purchase. POLES APART

JOHN BAXTER -  FILMSTRUCK: A Life in the Movies & THE PARIS MEN'S SALON - Two limited edition, self-published volumes of reminiscence, memoir, criticism, history studded with Baxter's extraordinary knowledge and intimate connections with the film industry and its key players around the world. It is brilliant- magical. What a writer! So many memories rekindled - and so much that’s new to me .. and Mr B. writes with such style and wit.”  Phillip Adams

Hard Copies are available for delivery in Australia for $50 for the two volumes or $30 each. Contact E-copies of a Pdf download may be purchased for $15 each via Paypal if you go through JOHN BAXTER'S WEBSITE 

TOM RYAN - THE FILMS OF DOUGLAS SIRK:  Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions. A major study of Sirk. "Tom has sought to return Sirkian criticism to origins through a meticulous reconsideration of Sirk’s complete oeuvre." Bruce Hodsdon. 

Available from Amazon Australia in three formats Kindle $31.82, Hardback $216, Paperback $39.85

GEOFF MAYER -  Encyclopaedia of American Film Serials 
From their heyday in the 1910s to their lingering demise in the 1950s, American film serials delivered excitement in weekly installments for millions of moviegoers, despite minuscule budgets, nearly impossible shooting schedules and the disdain of critics. Early heroines like Pearl White, Helen Holmes and Ruth Roland broke gender barriers and ruled the screen. Through both world wars, such serials as Spy Smasher and Batman were vehicles for propaganda. Smash hits like Flash Gordon and The Lone Ranger demonstrated the enduring mass appeal of the genre. Providing insight into early 20th century American culture, this book analyzes four decades of productions from Pathe, Universal, Mascot and Columbia, and all 66 Republic serials.
Kindle $26.99. Paperback 59.95. PURCHASE FROM AMAZON

DAVID STRATTON - 101 Marvellous Movies You May Have Missed Tired of trawling through movies you don't recognize on Netflix? Sick of reading short film descriptions that sound boring? Don't know what to watch next?

David Stratton introduces you to 101 movies that you probably haven't heard of, and tell you why they are worth seeing. 


Buy for $21.25 from BOOKTOPIA

BARRIE PATTISON - The Man Who Ate Films: The Life and Work of Michael Curtiz. Sydney's supercinephile brings an enormous knowledge and scholarship to a detailed study of the career of one of Hollywood's finest. Enquiries to  

Sunday 27 September 2020

THE RED CIRCLE (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1970) - First film in a season of Melville's films at the Ritz Cinema Randwick presented in association with Cinema Reborn

Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge
This coming Sunday 4 October at 4.00 pm AND JUST ANNOUNCED TO MEET PUBLIC DEMAND A SECOND SESSION AT 4.15 PM will see the first film ithe Jean-Pierre Melville seasoat the Ritz Cinema Randwick, presented in association with Cinema Reborn.


The film is Le Cercle Rouge/ Red Circle made in 1970. 


"In his penultimate film, Melville’s criminal world has never been so seductive and intoxicating, its extended silent jewel heist one of the most finely calibrated sequences in all cinema from anywhere.” Al Clark, producer of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert  and  executive producer of Chopper .


A man is released from a 5-year prison term on the same day a convicted murderer escapes from a train. The two men’s paths cross and, together with an alcoholic ex-cop, they plan the perfect heist (an astonishing, completely wordless 30-minute masterstroke). This was Melville’s biggest commercial success in France and perhaps his most perfectly realised crime film. The flawless cast features a set of quintessential Melvillian trench coated anti-heroes played by Alain Delon, Yves Montand and Gian Maria Volonté.


The 4K restoration of LE CERCLE ROUGE was done by StudioCanal and the French Centre national de Cinema from the original negative. The magnificent restoration was premiered at Il Cinema  Ritrovato in Bologna and screened as part of the 2020 selection of Venezia Classici/ Venice Classics. Venice director Alberto Barbera, when writing about the classic restorations strand, called it “the fantastic French heist thriller”. 


The Bologna catalogue note by Roberto Chiesi stated: “As is always the case in the great French director’s films, the clichés of a heist caper unravel into a melancholic meditation on the randomness, futility and solitude that characterise the human condition….It was Melville’s greatest box-office success, both in France and abroad, and it inspired many film-makers of the following generations…”  


Melville’s moody, epic love letter to gangster cinema (not to mention cold masculinity) details the nuts and bolts of a heist with brilliant precision, but it’s also a poetic exploration of Melville’s obsession with the business of busy-ness, working, his “opocentricity”. A major influence on filmmakers like Tarantino and John Woo, (re)discover this French classic on the big screen and immerse yourself in the Buddha’s “red circle”.  Ben Cho, Australian film director


“A twisting, inventive gangster caper from Jean-Pierre Melville. The most satisfyingly pure storytelling of his career." (Quote from Lee Server “The Big Book of Noir” )

If you would like to know about  Melville, tune in to this week's episode of The Screen Show hosted by Jason DiRosso on ABC Radio National at 10.00 am on Thursday 1 October  when Jason will discuss the great man's cinema with Associate Professor Adrian Danks of the School of Media & Communication RMIT University and Co-curator of the Melbourne Cinematheque and with Dr Jane Mills Associate Professor School of the Arts & Media, UNSW. Jane will also be doing the introduction to  Le Cercle Rouge at the Ritz screening. The show will be available as a podcast so if you miss it you can catch up by visiting the show's webpage 



Jean-Pierre Melville (centre) and the stars of
The Red Circle
Francois Perier, A
ndre Bourvil, Yves Montand, 
n Delon

Friday 25 September 2020

On DVD and Streaming - John Baxter ponders the pleasures of the rip-roaring action comedy Western COWBOY (Delmer Daves, USA, 1958)

Jack Lemmon, Glenn Ford, Cowboy


         Somewhere between the bleak, existential dramas of the Ranown cycle and the down-and-dirty school typified by the Coens’ True Grit remake and Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a sub-genre, the action comedy western, got lost. 

You know what I mean, I’m sure. The phrase “rip roaring” generally appeared in the advertising. They had one of those hoe-down scores that recycled Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. And they gave employment to a whole generation of frontier character actors; without them, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Richard Jaeckel and Henry Jones would have been on welfare. By the early sixties, most had been spun off into such TV series as Maverick and Sugarfoot but periodically a film like The War Wagon  or Support Your Local Sheriff would appear to remind us of their half-forgotten pleasures.

Richard Jaeckel, Cowboy

         Among these films, 
Cowboy stands out. Made in 1958, it slightly preceded the vogue, and also had the benefit of Delmer Daves as director and a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo as uncredited writer next to Edward H. North. (Trumbo’s credit has been belatedly restored.)


Frank Harris
"...bat ears, dark hair with a crinkle in it that grew low on the forehead,
and a truculent moustache."

The source is an improbable one - On the Trail: My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, written by one of the least likely of all western characters, Frank Harris. Friend and biographer of Oscar Wilde, author of a memoir in which he claims to have slept with two thousand women, inventor of an erotic card game called Dirty Banshee, Harris also had an awesome ability to offend. 

John dos Passos called him “an objectionable little man.  He was sallow as a gypsy. He had bat ears, dark hair with a crinkle in it that grew low on the forehead, and a truculent mustache. People remarked on the richness of his bass voice. His charm was great, particularly for the opposite sex. He had the gift of the gab to a sublime degree and a streak of deep scoundrelism that was the ruin of him.”  Whoever decided on Jack Lemmon to impersonate Harris deserves some kind of award.

Jack Lemmon, Cowboy

Harris did visit the United States and become a citizen. He did not witness the 1908 San Francisco earthquake nor meet Wild Bill Hickok, nor participate in the cattle drives from Mexico to Chicago depicted in the film. Harris’ secretary Thomas Bell did, however, and never ceased to complain of having his experiences ripped off. 

The film discovers Harris as a desk clerk in an up-market Chicago hotel which is thrown into confusion by the imminent arrival of rancher Tom Reece (Glenn Ford) and his hands, who have just driven a herd from Mexico. Harris succeeds in buying his way into a job with Reece, and the story segues into a bildungsroman,with the tenderfoot taught the ways of the world and the west by the reluctant cattleman.

John Huston originally owned the book, and wanted to cast his father Walter as Reece, obviously seen at that time as a patriarch, and Montgomery Cliff as Harris. After the death of Huston Senior, Spencer Tracy was considered, then Gary Cooper, with Alan Ladd. Who had the idea to move Reece down a generation in age and make it a back-handed buddy film for a younger audience? Daves, probably; after all, his next films, his most successful, was the teen melodrama A Summer Place, starring Troy Donohue. 

But it works. Cowboy is colourful, witty, occasionally romantic, but above all young. Lemmon and Ford are clearly having fun, even though their screen relationship is adversarial almost to the end. As Harris’s experiences on the trail inure him to violence, Reece wisely observes that ruthlessness must be leavened with compassion. “You haven’t got tough,” he says of his superficially hard-boiled apprentice, “You’ve just got miserable.”   

The hand of Trumbo is evident passim. After Lemmon has accused Reece of trying to go back on their deal, the Mexican trail boss (Victor Manuel Mendoza) tells Reece “He’s right.” 

 “What do you know about it?” Reece snarls. 

“Because if he was not right, you would have killed him by now.” 

 Cowboy relishes demolishing the illusions of frontier life. Take the horse. “A horse has a brain the size of a walnut,” says Reece. “They’re mean, they’re treacherous and they’re stupid.  There never was one that had the sense to move away from a hot fire. And have you ever eaten horse? It hasn’t got a gamy flavour. It hasn’t got a beef flavour. It just tastes like…horse.” As for the Noble Red Man, the trail hands spend some time discussing which part of an Indian is tenderest to eat.  John Ford this is not. 

But I never fail to enjoy its ease. Life on the trail was surely as hard as the histories say. But Lemmon and Ford and Daves and mostly, I suspect, Trumbo give it a swagger and a style that leave you wanting more.


Editor's note: For those seeking consideration of what John Baxter calls "the bleak, existential dramas of the Ranown cycle", click on the film titles to read Tom Ryan's recently posted thoughts so far on three films in the cycle Seven Men From NowThe Tall T and Decision At Sundown

Thursday 24 September 2020

On Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming - DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Budd Boetticher, USA, 1957) - The third of Tom Ryan's series devoted to the legendary cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott and (mostly) produced by Harry Joe Brown

The Ranown Cycle, Part 3


“Boetticher claimed he didn’t care for the film, saying it was one Scott and Harry Joe Brown planned to do before he shot Seven Men from Now… ‘It was already written. It was an old Randolph Scott picture,’ Boetticher recalled. ‘And I didn’t like that he was drunk in a lot of the last scenes. That didn’t befit him at all.’” 

                                                                        (Robert Nott, 2004) (1)


Like all of the films in the Ranown cycle (2)Decision at Sundown is directed by Budd Boetticher. For reasons that nobody appears to have pressed him on, he appears not to have cared for it. Hints have been tossed around about why: as suggested above, that it wasn’t a project that he was especially happy about tackling in the first place; that it required him to use Randolph Scott in a way he wasn’t happy about; that it brought back bad memories for him because it was while making it that he’d embarked on an ill-fated relationship with lead actress Karen Steele; that he’d a falling out on it with the writer, Charles Lang Jr.(with whom he’d previously worked on The Magnificent Matador [1955] and was concurrently preparing Buchanan Rides Alone, the fourth film in the Ranown cycle). Perhaps, he simply wasn’t happy with the final product and simply wanted to distance himself from it.


Budd Boetticher

It’s certainly very different from other films in the Ranown cycle, most notably in the direction in which it took Scott’s character. Once again, the actor is playing a grief-stricken man on a mission, seeking to avenge himself on a man whom he believes has wronged him. Only towards the end of the film, is it revealed that his goal is to avenge the death of his wife, who’d committed suicide a week before he’d returned from “fightin’ the war”. 


"...unshaven and generally dishevelled...",
Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown

Aside from revisiting a key story element of the previous films in the Ranown cycle, the vengeance plot here has significant echoes of the one in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) and Scott’s performance is not as distinct from James Stewart’s as one might have expected. He was known for playing upright, uncompromising heroes; Stewart for being an aw-shucks nice guy, before Mann and Hitchcock saw that he could also project a darker side. And in Decision at Sundown, Scott showed that he could too: his Bart Allison is a man poised on the brink of madness. 

He holds Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), with whom his wife had had an affair, responsible for her death, and has spent three years hunting him down. However, it becomes clear through Bart’s sidekick, Sam (Noah Beery, Jr.), that Kimbrough hadn’t been the first of her lovers and that she hadn’t been the marrying kind, to coin a quaint but misogynistically loaded euphemism of the time… one that, given the lack of any further information about her, the film carelessly seems to endorse.

John Carroll, Decision at Sundown

In the opening sequence, Bart looks and behaves like an outlaw. Unshaven and generally dishevelled, a rarity for a Scott character, he forces the stagecoach in which he’s a passenger to a halt. His abrasive behaviour when he and Sam subsequently arrive in Sundown, where Kimbrough is a big wheel, does little to counter this impression. In this way, Bart is clearly different from his predecessors in Seven Men from Now and The Tall T, but he’s also like them inasmuch as he’s the kind of man who doesn’t fit comfortably into a community. 


He might know about social mores, but he seems to have little time for them, his disruption of Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy ( Karen Steele) a deliberate affront to the conventional conduct of the ceremony. Only gradually does it emerge that he has revenge on his mind, making some sense of his driven behaviour. Meanwhile, Sam appears to have a much firmer grasp of reality than his friend.


"...disruption of the wedding..."  Decision at Sundown

This is a very different Scott from the one we might have grown accustomed to from his previous work, including the other Boetticher Westerns (3). And it’s here, in Decision at Sundown, that Paul Schrader’s otherwise illuminating observations about the transcendental dimension of the characters that the actor plays in the Ranown cycle miss their mark. “Boetticher’s Scott is, in a strange way, like Bresson’s Joan of Arc,” Schrader writes. “A person who lives by a special call and is not rationally responsive to the dangers of earthly existence.” (4)


In the other five films, it’s possible to see how the Scott characters somehow exist above it all, embodying a state of Grace that enables their moral certainty, what Jim Kitses rightly sees as their “great serenity” (5), and makes them attractive to others, male and female. But that’s nowhere to be found here. Perhaps it once was for the character; perhaps it was what drew Sam to him in the first place. 


Noah Beery Jr, Decision at Sundown

But the Bart that we come to know doesn’t sit easily with Schrader’s thesis. Decision at Sundown gives us a Scott character who lacks the moral authority that grounds most of the others he plays (especially in the Ranown cycle). Despite Boetticher’s retrospective regrets, this appears to have been part of the filmmaker’s deliberately subversive strategy. For what he gives us is a man and a society in a state of breakdown.


In Sundown, the law has nothing to do with moral authority or the pursuit of justice. The sheriff (Andrew Duggan) is paid by Kimbrough to do his bidding and, like the rest of the townsfolk, isn’t prepared to take a stand against him. It eventually becomes clear that this third film in the Ranown cycle is something of an outlier: it’s finally less about Bart than it is about how his actions affect a community that has gone astray. Perhaps this is because it’s written by Lang rather than Burt Kennedy (who was involved in the writing of the other films in the cycle)?


Like several other westerns of the time in which the HUAC subtext is irresistible (High NoonWichitaThe Fastest Gun Alive), Decision at Sundown is as much about a community that has lost its soul as it is about a man with a gun who becomes the catalyst for change. Here, that man is not only uninterested in the issues with which the townspeople have to contend but also largely unaware of them. And, when they finally do the right thing, he refuses to have anything to do with them, furious at how they’ve stood by and watched Sam being murdered by one of Kimbrough’s badge-wearing thugs. 


At the end, he heads out of town as Western heroes conventionally do, leaving it a better place for his having been there. But a giant shadow is cast over that resolution by all that has preceded it, to do with both the town’s (and, by implication, humanity’s) failures and his own. It appears that his anger is what makes him tick, that without it he is empty. A casualty of the Civil War that he’d been off fighting before the film begins? A sociopath? A lost soul, like Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers? But even Ethan understands, at least intuitively, why he doesn’t belong inside the door that closes on him.


A despairing Sam has earlier said of him, “Maybe you can’t convince a man like him about somethin’ he just don’t wanna know about.” And there’s nothing in the film to contradict this. Although there’s enough in Scott’s performance to remind one of the actor who’s long played the hero, Boetticher doesn’t soften the character at any point. 


Valerie French, Decision at Sundown

Kimbrough is allowed some self-respect at the end as he departs Sundown with the very loyal saloon girl, Ruby (Valerie French), by his side. Although he’s rejected by the local populus, or most of them, including Lucy, he has been made human by his acknowledgment to her of his fear as he goes to face Bart in a showdown. And his departure in a buckboard at the end allows him a kind of release. But for Bart there is no such escape and, while he leaves with his righteousness intact, it’s as if he’s been devoured by a madness that has then spewed him out into the wilderness.


This is a marked shift in direction for Scott, Boetticher drawing on his iconic presence and using it against itself. It would be fascinating to know what Scott thought of this, what kind of a part he played in facilitating it. If he was doing more here than simply turning up to the set and taking home his pay cheque! Given that it’s one of the nine times in his career that he’s credited as associate producer, it seems likely (despite his reputation for being more interested in his business affairs than the films he was making).


Karen Steele, Decision at Sundown

Setting aside the character assassination of Bart’s unseen wife, also noteworthy in the film is the moral force given to the key female characters. Both Lucy and Ruby acquire a potent dignity as they plead with the men to settle down and deal their differences without resorting to gunplay. The anticipated showdown between Bart and Kimbrough is even called to a halt when Ruby grabs a rifle and shoots her beloved in the shoulder before either man has a chance to draw his gun. And she fires a different kind of volley at Bart: “How can you get revenge for something you never had?”


The depiction of the women in Decision at Sundown directly contradicts Peter Wollen’s claim (writing for The New Left Review in 1965 under the pen name Lee Russell) that the women in Boetticher’s movies are “phantoms with no authentic significance”. He cites Boetticher’s own words to support his position: “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself, the woman has not the slightest importance.” (6) 


While one can see the pertinence of this view in Boetticher’s treatment of the female characters in the other films in the Ranown cycle (7)– where the male characters are all defined at least in part by the way they treat the women with whom they cross paths – it’s certainly not the case here. Perhaps it’s because Bart has crossed the line, becoming more like the villains who’d come up against the Scott characters in the other films in the cycle (and beyond).


The showdownus interruptus also pointedly has both Bart and Kimbrough depicted as damaged men. Bart has gone into the shoot-out with his gun-hand heavily bandaged it (he’d accidentally cut it during an earlier shoot-out in which he’d summarily executed the cowardly sheriff in the main street); and Kimbrough now has a wounded shoulder in need of attention by the town doctor (John Archer). 


The doctor has been the voice of good sense throughout, charging the townspeople’s failure to act as ultimately responsible for the situation that has arisen around them. “We’re all guilty,” he says. And when the bartender (James Westerfield) tells him, “If you’d been tending bar as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race,” he hears and understands. But, as he takes care of Bart’s wounded hand, his words of wisdom – “There’s some things you can’t change with bullets” – fall on deaf ears.


A Scott-Brown production, the film was based on a 1955 novel of the same name by Vernon L. Fluharty (a pen name for Michael Carder). The title might suggest a choice being made at the end of a day: the choice of preposition – “at Sundown” rather than “in Sundown” – encourages such a reading. But the unfolding drama points us elsewhere, to a series of decisions made by a range of characters in a particular location. The most notable of these is the one made by the townspeople, to step outside the boundaries Kimbrough has determined for them. But then there are also the choices made by other major characters along the way – Bart, Kimbrough and the two women in his life – about how they should act when a crisis arises. 

The film finds an honourable humanity only in the actions taken by the women. Kimbrough proves to be a pragmatist without principle, although he’s scarcely the villain one might have anticipated from the way he’s described prior to his actual appearance in the film. Bart, however, seems quite beyond redemption, Robert Nott rightly describing him in his book about Scott as “perhaps the most unsympathetic hero the actor ever played”. (8)


(1)       Robert Nott, The Films of Randolph Scott, McFarland & Co., Inc., USA, 2004, p. 202

(2)       For commentary on the first two films of the cycle, see


      (3)       Robert J. Read also makes this point in his essay on the film. See Read, “Decision at Sundown”, Senses of Cinema, July, 2005


(4)       Paul Schrader, “Budd Boetticher: A Case Study in Criticism”, Cinema, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1971), p. 28  [also in Kevin Jackson, ed., Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, Faber and Faber, London, 1990]

(5)       Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, New Edition, BFI Publishing, 2004, p. 178

(6) Lee Russell, “Budd Boetticher”, in Jim Kitses & Greg Rickman, eds., The                 Western Reader, Limelight editions, New York, 1998, pp. 199 – 200 [Laura Mulvey also takes issue with Boetticher’s comment in her influential essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, first published in 1975]

   (7)     Mike Dibb makes the same point in his essay about Boetticher and Lone Pine,         proposing that, in the director’s films – or at least the four that he focuses on from the Ranown cycle, excluding Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone – “women are the objects of unconsummated desire, but beyond that a bit of a mystery”. See Mike Dibb, “A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western”, in Ian Cameron & Douglas Pye, eds., The Movie Book of the Western, Studio Vista, London, p. 165

    (8) Nott, op. cit., p. 200

US DVD cover