Bud Boetticher once said he did not make B movies but C movies whose very lack of publicity (they were rarely shown in Hollywood) permitted him to take chances. In the additional material now de riguer on DVD’s, Taylor Hackford applies this statement to the slightly risqué themes that Bo slips into his Westerns: In Decision at Sundown, the wicked Tate Kimbrough (played by John Carroll) is keeping company with his mistress on his wedding day. But Hackford is a good enough filmmaker to understand that it is not the muted sexual innuendo that makes Boetticher’s movies seem surprisingly “mature” for the 1950’s but the refusal to simplify his morality plays—and they are morality plays—into a stark contrast between black and white, good and evil.
Decision at Sundown is one of a series of collaborations with Randolph Scott, who produced most of them. In Decision, Boetticher explores one of his favorite subjects: the good man taking revenge for an outrage done to his wife. In this case, Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) is a Confederate veteran who has come to Sundown to wreak his vengeance on Tate Kimbrough, who had seduced his wife while he was away fighting. Abandoned by her lover, Mary Allison killed herself. Backed up by Sam, his amiable but very hungry side-sick (Noah Beery, Jr.—Jim Rockford’s father, if you can remember that far back), Bart is determined to kill his enemy on his wedding day. The town doctor (TV veteran John Archer), who loathes Kimbrough and thinks the young bride is either deluded or (it is hinted) forced into marriage by her corrupt father, at first encourages the embittered Bart. The doctor had found a home in Sundown, and Kimbrough has ruined that home, and he assumes the ex-Confederate knows what it is like to lose everything.
But the surprises begin even before Bart and Sam arrive in Sundown. In the masterful opening scene, in which Bart forces the stagecoach driver to stop and left him off in the middle of nowhere, we are expecting a holdup. In fact, Bart has arranged to meet Sam, who takes his sweet time in arriving. He had been waiting without food for two days and fell asleep. The audience is disappointed—no robbery, no gunplay.
As the story unfolds, we are treated to more disappointments. The bride really is in love with, and has sought the marriage. Bart is every bit as brave and tough as a Randolph Scott hero is supposed to be, but his sidekick finally has to inform him that his wife was no good and that Kimbrough was far from her first diversion. Bart punches him and tells him to leave. He does leave, under a truce, but only to get something to eat. Attempting to return, he tries to pick up his guns and is shot by the sheriff and his deputies.
With his hired gun—Swede the sheriff (Andrew Duggan) and his deputies, Kimbrough has been running the town, but egged on by the doctor, the cowboys regain their manhood and force the sheriff to have a fair fight with Bart. Bart is wounded in the hand but kills the sheriff. Now it is up to Kimbrough to do the job himself. He is not, apparently, much of a gunman, and although he postpones the inevitable by taking a few drinks, Kimbrough turns out to be a man after all and faces Bart in the street.
I won’t give away the ending, but the brave villain leaves town with his honor—and his adoring mistress. Bart, after refusing to drink with the cowboys who had helped him—if they had done what a man is supposed to do, his partner would not have been killed—rides away, even more bitter than when he arrived. Some of the bitterness must arise from his knowledge that he, as much as the cowardice of the locals, is responsible for his friend’s death.
All in all, Decision at Sundown is a surprisingly good little movie, as morally serious as much of the best popular fiction set in the West. Randolph Scott is perfect as the weather-beaten and humorless Bart, John Carroll is surprisingly deft in his Clark Gable impersonation, and Noah Beery—always the perfect sidekick—is there to remind us that Bart, one of the finest of men, has wasted his life on doing what a man may have to do. All Sam wanted was a normal life for his friend, but for a man like Bart, who has lost his country as well as his wife, there can be no chance for a normal life.
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Postscript: We are developing a Filmlog feature, but it will take some time. Chronicles contributors and othe writers who wish to contribute to this section should contact the webmaster. Pieces need not be very long, but we are limiting ourselves to good movies not in the theaters.