The seven late-1950s westerns that Budd Boetticher directed Randolph Scott in did not require much range in characterization by Scott. He played a dour, aging man who could ride horses and shoot guns and who was saddened with varying degrees of bitterness about having lost the love of his life. These men idealized their dead wives and adhered to a rigid code of honor. They honored their pledges and despised anyone who failed to keep their promises and/or in other ways live up to The Code.
I had seen “Decision at Sundown” (1957) without knowing what Bart Allison (Scott) did not know and refused to hear (what I call a “will not to know”). This knight of the woeful countenance came into town (Sundown is a place, not a time) with a Sancho Panza, Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) who did not know why he (Sam) had tracked down an oily Southerner named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) who has become the corrupt boss of Sundown.
It is best for those who are reading and have not seen the movie to skip over the next section!
Plot spoiler alert
Bart and Sam arrive just before Kimbrough is to be married, and Bart answers the rhetorical question about why the two should not wed. The wedding should only go ahead, Bart says, if the bride is prepared to be a widow before sundown (OK, the time sundown is also important)
In that Kimbrough’s control of the town rests on his employing thugs (and owning the sheriff), this approach seems to everyone else (including me!) more foolish than brave.
Even with a plot spoiler alert, I don’t want to reveal much about the many decisions the characters make before sundown in Sundown. The first time I saw the movie, I thought it was something of a variant on “High Noon,” from a time after Joe McCarthy had been censured and getting around the blacklist was fairly common knowledge (the 1957 Oscar-winning screenplay, for instance). That is, this time, the townspeople stir, disarming Kimbrough’s thugs.
Watching it again, I saw even more elements of “High Noon,” beyond the town rallying against its despot. The sheriff has to go it alone, and there is a woman (albeit one pure than Grace Kelly as Gary Cooper’s Quaker wife in “High Noon”) taking up a gun.
For a 77-minute movie, there are a lot of gunfights, but they are character-driven and character defining rather than action for action’s sake. The stiff-necked (physically and metaphorically) Scott thirsting for revenge has illusions and is scapegoating Kimbrough, who is no angel (as he reminds his fiancée he has never claimed to be). Both he and the sheriff may not share an honor code, but ultimately act bravely, though neither is as indifferent to living to see another dawn as Bart Allison is (so, by my calculus, they are braver).
End plot spoiler alert
Scott was good at playing stiff, self-righteous characters less in the right than they believed themselves to be. Beery provided some comic relief without being buffoonish, and Valerie French and John Carroll managed to make complex characters from roles that easily could have been clichés.
The movie was obviously shot in a studio (Columbia’s) and more of it takes place indoors (saloon, church, hotel rooms, livery stable) than outdoors. Kimbrough has corrupted the town he de facto owns, but Bart Allison is not there to clean it up, and his delusions are stronger than the townspeople’s…
Other than a speech from Dr. Storrow (John Archer), the movie was shot with admirable economy (by which I don’t mean budget, but of every shot advancing the stories and not running any longer than necessary to do that.
In addition to some echoes and structural inversions of “High Noon,” “Decision at Sundown” seems to me to have influenced Howard Hawks’s great 1959 western “Rio Bravo,” which also takes place mostly indoors and deals with redeeming partly imagined past wrongs. In between, Boetticher and Scott more or less parodied “Decision at Sundown” in Buchanan Rides Again.) Both these movies and three others (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) are available with a documentary about Boetticher in “The Films Of Budd Boetticher.” Their first collaboration, “7 Men From Now” is also available separately on DVD.