Thursday, May 24, 2012


I caught these two Westerns over the past days, and what a trip.

I'd never heard of THE LAST SUNSET, but when I was changing channels and the credits were just starting and I caught Dalton Trumbo's name written big for screenwriter and Robert Aldrich for director, and saw it came out in 1961, I figured I had to check it out. Turns out Trumbo adapted it from a novel by Howard Rigsley, but it still had some of Trumbo's trademark flourishes (or actually his trademark anti-flourishes).

This was only a few years after he had been forced to write with "fronts" (using someone else's name and person to pretend to have written it) because he was blacklisted. But Kirk Douglas was I believe the first person to hire him as himself again to write, if I remember correctly, SPARTACUS (a movie in which the message is the antidote to McCarthyism). And LAST SUNSET stars Douglas in one of his most peculiar roles. He plays an Irish Western gunman (named O'Malley!) with a gift for poetry and of course charm, but underneath it a brutal and vicious rage.

Dorothy Malone plays his long lost love interest, Carol Lynley her daughter, Jospeh Cotton her aging drunkard husband, and Rock Hudson Kirk's nemesis, the upright sheriff tracking his man etc. I love Westerns because they're so constricted by the parameters of the genre—like Commedia Dell'Arte or Kabuki theater—that it's always a kick to see how truly creative minds can bend the conventions to eke out an original story despite the seemingly limited choices.

THE LAST SUNSET has to be just about one of the weirdest variations on the Western ever. There are so many unexpected (and almost unjustifiable in terms of plot and character) twists, including the penultimate one that sets the climax in motion, a twist so original at the time that it may have cost the movie any true popularity, but it may also have inspired a more famous one that came a decade later with the supposed "new Hollywood" that is still touted as "revolutionary" when, if you're a film buff, you see the origins throughout "old Hollywood" style flicks, like THE LAST SUNSET.

THEY CAME TO CORDURA on the other hand is a movie title I feel like I've known all my life, though it came out when I was seventeen in 1959. Maybe because the stars were so "old Hollywood," like Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, both still looking Hollywood gorgeous even though they play the trials and tribulations of people walking for miles in barren Mexican high desert about as realistically as any movie probably had at that point.

Directed and co-written by Robert Rossen, it too has a story that is one of the oddest I've ever seen in a Western. Not the plot, which is similar to plenty of them. But the characters and the ways their character moves the story. (And the casting, Van Heflin as a nasty old bastard cavalry sergeant and Tab Hunter as a young officer who loses it, and Dick York the future TV husband of "Jeannie" as an earnest farm boy private etc.) On one level it's maybe the most cynical Hollywood Western up until then, but on another it's a classic story of true heroism, even if the heroism is based on some strange ideas about heroism.

You might have to really care about old movies and/or Westerns to really dig these movies as much as I did. Well, not the movies so much as the actors and writing and directing that makes them so unusual. Despite the obvious contrivances, and the aging stars and their, well, aging (and aging mannerisms), there's a solidness to the movie making, especially in the supposed Mexican Western landscapes both are set in, that captivated me.


Robert Berner said...

Lal--Add to your list of "modern" westerns that have subsequently become classics, "Lonely Are The Brave," with Kirk Douglas as one man against the system, and Clark Gable's last major film, "The Misfits."
Bob B.

Lally said...

Yeah Bob, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE is Kirk's best in many ways (and Gena Rowlands is in it) but it was an independent flick produced by Douglas I believe and came after THE LAST SUNET which was more of a dying old Hollywood gasp. THE MISFITS is something else all together. For my taste it tries too hard and disappoints too much, so many great creative geniuses working together but forgetting the basic concept of a movie to move, for my taste. Some great scenes, and some meaningful dialogue, and the acting is sometimes brilliant, but overall THE MISFITS always strikes me as a little tedious.