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

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