Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Last Sunset

The sexual hubris of Hollywood's dirty old men is on display in Robert Aldrich's 1961 Western, The Last Sunset.  A 16-year old virgin falls in love with a grizzled gunfighter (played by Kirk Douglas), a man 30 years older than her.   The screenwriter and filmmaker, Dalton Trumbo, can quite come up with compelling reasons why such a romance might be catastrophic.  Accordingly, they engineer a climactic reveal to bar the match -- it turns out that the young woman is...(gasp!)...the gunfighter's daughter.  Presumably, if incest were not an obstacle, no one would think twice about this sexual liaison.  Clearly, I've mortally wounded The Last Sunset by the spoiler that I've just disclosed -- on the other hand, even a blind man could see how things will have to work out in this picture at a range of a dozen miles or so.  Simply put, there's not much surprising about the film's final showdown. 

That said, The Last Sunset is a reasonably well-written and neatly plotted Western that delivers with respect to the standard formulas.  An implacable lawman bent on revenge (the unfortunately named Sheriff Stribling -- Rock Hudson) has pursued a deadly gunfighter attired all in black to a ranch in Mexico.  The gunfighter is an Irish killer and poet named O'Malley (Kirk Douglas).  He plans to hide out on a remote ranch where his ex-girlfriend (Dorothy Malone) is living with her alcoholic husband played by Joseph Cotton.  The gunfighter spent one night of passion with Dorothy Malone 17 years ago.  The product of that brief encounter is a handsome teenage girl whom Cotton's rancher has raised as his own daughter.  O'Malley immediately tries to renew the love affair with the rancher's wife, although she resists him -- hesitantly, it must be noted.  Stribling arrives at the ranch and the men decide that they will cooperate to drive a thousand head of cattle over dangerous terrain to a railhead on the American side of the Rio Grande -- this is a way for Rock Hudson to get Kirk Douglas to the States where he can serve a warrant on him. This plot contrivance doesn't make a whole lot of sense but has the salutary effect of putting the show on the road as it were -- moving the action, that is, away from the ranch and out into the hostile terrain of northern Chihuahua.  There are renegade Yaqui Indians to be encountered, a group of nasty hombres led by Jack Elam (make this note to yourself -- if Jack Elam offers to join your cattle drive, turn him down), and various other hazards including (in a ridiculous scene) quicksand, thunderstorms with lightning, stampedes, etc.  The movie seems to have been written under the aegis of J. Frank Dobie, the Homer of the Texas cattle-drives, and features some of that author's trademark scenes -- notably, there is a wonderful image of St. Elmo's fire flickering across the horns of the longhorn cattle.  Trumbo's script is pretty much blarney, although it has some picturesque lines.  O'Malley does his killing with a derringer because "you can't hit anything at more than 20 feet with handgun and it's (the derringer's) slug is a lot bigger."  Joseph Cotton turns in a slobbering, ugly performance as the alcoholic rancher -- it's fine, but humiliating, and when Cotton is killed in a cantina early in the film (a dispute over who ran away and who didn't in the American Civil War), a little of the wind goes out of the film's sails.  Dorothy Malone looks fantastic in the movie -- she has a bruised ripe look, pouting at the camera in her skin-tight blouses and one shot, that shows her poised like a Mexican senorita, fire in her eyes, against the blue velvet night is extraordinarily beautiful.  There are some other fine scenes -- an image of the cattle swimming directly at the camera through the Rio Grande is thrilling and there are plenty of horse-chases.  The final show-down is staged classically, the combatants measuring out the precise length and breadth of the film's aspect ratio for the gunfight that everyone seems to witness (although, as I have said, the outcome is never in doubt).  A love scene between Douglas and the 16 year old ingénue doesn't become embarrassing because of the subtle pastel tints of purple sky in a little lagoon behind the lovers -- it's too pretty to be embarrassing.  And there is some nice singing of old Mexican songs, including a lovely rendition of "La Paloma" -- "koo-koo roo-koo, koo-koo-koo-roo, koo- koo-roo."   

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