Classic Review: Decision at Sundown (1957)

Director: Budd Boetticher

Starring: Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele

Release Date: 10th November 1957 (US)

When it comes to westerns, I admit I aint from around these parts. The whole ‘Cowboys and Indians’ thing struck me as a fetish of a very small period of history and a very particular corner of the world, resulting in films that looked the same, felt the same, and said the same thing. Horses and ranches, white hats and black hats, sasparilla and saloon bars, in lands where a single silver star keeps the night at bay. A hundred thousand towns broiling in the deserts of old Texas or Arizona, and you could watch their stories, as bleached and identical as steer skulls, all at once if the camera pulled out far enough, but it doesn’t, for Hollywood cannot resist keeping its sore, red eye fixed on the line in the dust, where it imagines good can be separated from bad, freedom from lawlessness.

There’s a moment in Decision at Sundown where the steadfast local physician, Dr John Sturrow (John Archer) explains why he set up his practice in the settlement named Sundown; he “fell in love with the place and the people.” Yet the town looks like any other we might see in a western: the main street with its stables, barbershop, general store, modest church, the hotel with the saloon which serves nothing but whisky, all as familiar to us as yesterday’s newspaper. But the people? The sheriff, the gangman, the lone stranger who rides into town, the comedy sidekicks, the barkeep who’s seen it all before, just as we have; the women, all two of them, the pretty-plain innocent, and the vivacious gal who dresses in the brightest colors of the day. They’re all here. People, however, are more problematic than their surroundings; they bring with them their histories, and the present day is often an ill-fitting jigsaw of those pasts trying to lock together to form a picture.

The American Civil War (1861-65) gave those pieces one almighty shake. One in five American men between the ages of 20 and 40 perished; everyone knew someone who had died during the conflict. America changed and its people changed, just as the turmoil of World War Two would alter the character of the nation. It’s to this arena director Budd Boetticher returned, having overseen the examination of contemporary postwar America in his taut thriller The Killer is Loose (1956). In his book on Harry Cohn, the autocratic head of Columbia Pictures, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, Benard F Dick praised the westerns Boetticher directed for the studio: “they are taut narratives in which the West is the backdrop for an exploration of moral issues…yet within limitations imposed by both budget and setting, Boetticher could still create moral fables with formal compositions in a palce of grands vistas and romanticized landscapes.” With DAS, Boetticher examines the effect of past violence on a more closely knit community than in TKIL, a town which thought it had won peace, only to find a stranger in their midst – and two years later, found themselves hoping another stranger would solve their problems. Human beings however, are not so easily solved.

A stagecoach plies it ways across the open country, only to be held up at gunpoint. Nothing odd there you might think, but this stagecoach is held up from the inside, by passenger Bart Allison (Randolph Scott, in one of seven westerns he made with Boetticher), who reckons he’ll get off where he pleases, a philosophy he’ll invoke many times during this film.

Allison has arranged this meeting point with his friend Sam (Noah Beery Jnr, known to a generation of TV viewers as James Garner’s father in The Rockford Files), who appears with a spare horse. The two men have spent the last three years tracking down a man named Tate Kimbrough, and Sam has finally located him in the nearby town of Sundown. Kimbrough has the town in his grip, with its residents too scared to act against his rule. “I’m glad to hear he’s doing so well,” says Allison. “When a man’s riding high, the ground comes up and hits him a lot harder when he falls.” Before we get into the moral complexities and character motivation, can I just say Randolph Scott is wearing the coolest leather jacket I’ve ever seen in a movie? Forget Marlon Brando, the jacket Scott is rocking in DAS must have come from the slickest beast on the prairie.

The pair ride into town to the sound of church bells. Wouldn’t you know it, today is Tate Kimbrough’s wedding day, so Allison gets himself a shave – literally, wielding the razor himself when the barber, Mr Baldwin (Vaughn Taylor), refuses to serve Allison as he’s about to close to attend the wedding. The barber happens to be shaving Mr Summerton (John Litel), the father of the bride. Tate’s a lucky man, opines Baldwin. Tate is rotten, retorts Allison. They may both be right.

Outside, Mr Summerton rides alongside Dr Sturrow, who asks how his daughter, Lucy, is today. Both father and daughter are in good health comes the reply, but that isn’t what the good doctor meant. Mr Summerton brusquely tells Dr Sturrow that his concern should go no further. Sam has already mentioned Kimbrough’s influence, and we get a sense of something ‘off’ about the way the townspeople interact. Watching from a hotel window is Ruby James (Valerie French), who is helping Kimbrough (John Carroll) prepare for his wedding. It’s soon clear that Ruby loves Kimbrough (it’s less clear why, but there’s no accounting for taste), and we see enough to guess the feeling is mutual, but Kimbrough is marrying Lucy Summerton and that’s all there is is too it. Ruby plans to go against Kimbrough’s wishes and attend the ceremony: “if I see you getting married, it’ll be easier to believe you belong to someone else.” Kimbrough relents, on the condition Ruby doesn’t sit on the front pew. In his first scene, Kimbrough comes across as a man of considerable will, used to getting his own way, but one could say as much for Allison. Certainly they share a sense of self-reliance (“I’ve never needed anyone,” Kimbrough states to Ruby), but one would hesitate to call Kimbrough a cold-blooded villain on this evidence.

Allison and Sam head to the livery stables to feed their horses and find the owner, Abe (Guy Wilkerson), talking with Dr Storrow. Abe guesses the two aren’t yankees; “the war’s over,” says Sam, not wanting to re-open old wounds; ironic, given his choice of friend. Abe confirms Kimbrough is a “mighty fine fellow,” and leaves for the wedding – but not before dousing himself in scent. Dr Storrow tells Allison and Sam “some folks around here figure they aren’t interested in more of Kimbrough’s friends.” Allison isn’t the kind of man who cares what other people figure.

Baldwin discusses the strangers’ grudge in the hotel saloon, where the drinks are on Kimbrough for the day, but as Otis the barman (James Westerfield) says, you can’t arrest people for having an opinion (a pertinent point for an America on constant alert for communists). Allison and Sam enter, and insist on buying their own whisky, not wanting to benefit from Kimbrough’s charity. Sundown’s sheriff, Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan), suggests they all drink to the Kimbrough’s health, causing Allison and Sam to drop their whiskies into the ashcan. The sheriff warns the pair not to stay in town as the others head to the church.

The bridegroom, and the guests, arrive for the ceremony, including Morley Chase (Ray Teale) and his sons, whose position in town was trampled during Kimbrough’s rise to power. As the guests enter, we here a priceless instruction from a church attendant: “men, leave your guns in the vestibule,” a quaint tradition I wished Americans would abide by in the present day. The sheriff hands over his gun, but Allison, entering last of all, remains armed. As ever in the movies, the moment of truth comes when the Justice of the Peace, Mr Zaron (intriguingly, we learn the Reverend Petersen, who would have officiated, is “out of town”), asks for any just cause or impediment – and Allison has held his peace long enough. The congregation learn of an incident that took place at Sabine Pass, in which Kimbrough took up with Allison’s wife, Mary, leading to her suicide. Kimbrough denies knowing Allison or his late wife. Lucy objects to this stranger interrupting her big day, only for Allison to advise “if you marry that man, you’ll be a widow by sundown.” Allison pays Zaron (Richard Deacon) for the abandoned ceremony, and for Kimbrough’s forthcoming funeral. Who said libertarians only think in the short-term?

Allison and Sam bolt for cover in the livery stables as a full-scale gun fight breaks out. As they dodge the bullets, Sam asks Allison why he didn’t kill Kimbrough when he had the chance; the reply, Allison wants Kimbrough to know he is being hunted. At the hotel, Kimbrough tells the sheriff to bring Lucy, who has fled for home, back to the church by twelve. Zaron absents himself from the goings-on, as he dislikes guns. “That figures,” mutters Kimbrough, summing up a grievance against the church as a retreat for cowards, perhaps a common belief at the time. As for me, I’d prefer a dog-collar over a necktie party any day.

The sheriff’s henchmen take up positions around the stable, with one, Spanish (H M Wynant), sneaking under the stable’s front window. Sam, hooking straw bales inside for cover, hooks Spanish by the arm and drags him through the open window, in the film’s grisliest moment. Allison allows Dr Storrow to attend to Spanish, and the cure looks as nasty as the injury; let’s just say it involves iodine and biting down on a wad of linen. Spanish threatens Allison but is allowed to leave. Dr Sturrow tells Allison that men “bent on revenge have a one-track mind; he seldom accomplishes what he sets out to do.” The doctor doesn’t believe in violence, but feels it may be the only way to rid the town of Kimbrough. One of DAS‘s themes is of what happens when a man’s personal beliefs come into conflict, and here the doctor faces the classic moral problem of pacifism compelled to fight a violent force. In such a position, how can good truly win over bad, if it means compromising its own values?

Discussing events at the hotel, Kimbrough comes up with the idea of paying Allison to leave town, and wants the sheriff, who is in Kimbrough’s employ, to pass on the message. The sheriff dislikes the idea of being shot dead by Allison, no matter how well Kimbrough is paying him to carry out his dirty work, and wants to know why Kimbrough can’t do the job himself, bringing up another DAS motif, of taking, or dodging, moral responsibility. We suspect that the truth is both men are too scared to admit ultimate responsibility and act on their own. Mr Summerton arrives wanting the ceremony postponed, and Kimbrough volunteers his prospective father-in-law for the job. Whether Kimbrough will allow Allison to leave town without some extra bullets about his person is another matter altogether.

Summerton delivers the ultimatum, but Allison and Sam refuse the offer, with Allison accusing the old man of buying his daughter a husband. It’s hard to say exactly why the marriage is going ahead in the first place; presumably it’s a consolidation of social status for both parties (we later learn the idea was as much Lucy’s as anyone else). Sam asks Allison why he gave Kimbrough advanced notice of his impending demise. “Even a rattler gives a warning,” replies Allison. If rattlesnakes gave the lengthy warning that Allison is giving Kimbrough, says Sam, “they’d be as out of date as one of them deeny-os-aws,” the bizarre pronunciation a nice touch, given Sam doesn’t strike one as caring for the finer points of paleontology. It’d be interesting to find out how far dinosaurs had penetrated the US public consciousness around 1870, but we should put that discussion off until we review a movie with genuine deeny-os-saws; I suggest The Valley of Gwangi (1968), should anyone want to put together a cowboys and dinosaurs dissertation. I’ll stop talking about dinosaurs now.

Back at the saloon, Baldwin and the others, imbibing much free whisky, make fun of the Sheriff’s efforts at capturing Allison, which amounts to little more than peering around a corner and shouting towards the stable. Kimbrough points out the barber isn’t doing much either; Baldwin counters that he wouldn’t want to show the sheriff up. Checking Zandor has his Bible, Kimbrough and the Justice of the Peace head for the Summertons’ for a makeshift wedding. Once there, Lucy wants to know what’s all this about a certain Mary, and of the chance she’ll become the world’s fastest widow. Kimbrough appears honest in his account of his past personal history with other women, and tells Lucy Allison is acting this way as “he doesn’t understand women like I do,” but DAS is a film about understanding yourself, and your place among other people. Kimbrough asks Lucy to forget about Allison.

Instead, Lucy drives to the stables to ask Allison about Mary, and it transpires Kimbrough left out the telling detail that Mary was married to Allison when they had their fling. Even so, Lucy disputes the right Allison feels he has to kill her intended, telling Allison that if Mary was willing enough to go with Kimbrough, then the love Allison felt he had with his wife wasn’t worth the while. This gets Lucy a meaty slap on the butt as Allison bundles the girl out of the stables. Sam decides it’s time Allison heard the truth – “she isn’t what you thought she was.” This gets Sam a punch to the jaw. As they say, the the truth hurts.

Allison makes the sheriff an offer of his own, that Sam be allowed to go to the eating rooms for a meal, and to return unharmed. The look on Allison’s face as he leaves informs us he’s realized there was something about Mary, something an awful lot of men got to enjoy. Sam eats as he talks to Dr Sturrow about Mrs Allison: “she was beautiful, but wild. Kimbrough was the last man she got a hankering for.” We learn that a week before Allison returned from the civil war, Mary killed herself through shame at her actions. Now, Sam wants his partner to take up Summerton’s offer, and “live like a man really should live.”

Sam makes for the stables, but as he retrieves his holster, Spanish guns him down, only to be shot by Allison. Dr Sturrow rushes to Sam’s aid, but can only listen to the man’s dying words: “Doc, tell him, Mary was – .” As with the discussion earlier, the viewer suspects we’re not actually hearing what the characters say, that harsher words are used just beyond our earshot, words which would have earned DAS unwanted attention from the censor. The characters hear something different to ourselves, and it’s an interesting effect.

Allison, still sheltering in the stables, tells the sheriff he’s next and Hansen replies in kind, with Dr Sturrow adding that the sheriff won’t face Allison alone. The doctor appeals to Allison, but he’s through with listening: “where I come from, a lawman doesn’t shoot a man in the back, and when he gives his word, he keeps it!” Randolph Scott’s performance is at its best here, showing a man blinded by rage and almost by tears, yet fiercely protecting his own moral code, which acts as a kind of restraint to his rage.

Dr Sturrow ushers the townspeople back into the saloon, telling Otis it’s better they don’t see what might happen to Allison. “Doc, if you’ve been barkeeping for as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much from the human race.” As if proving the barkeep’s words, Baldwin torments Zandor, by bothering him with whisky which, as a would-be man of the cloth, Zandor refuses. Baldwin responds by smashing the bottle of whisky Zandor keeps in his inside coat pocket, much to the amusement of the others. Everyone knew Zandor was a secret drinker and, as Baldwin puts it, now Zandor knows everyone knows. Dr Sturrow scolds Baldwin, but is he right to do so? After all, Zandor intends to be a preacher, and a man with a secret alcohol problem can’t expect to take the moral high ground. The doctor, in contrast, believes it’s a man’s right to keep a secret, even if everyone knows the truth. Who is right?

The doctor rails against the crowd for allowing Kimbrough to take over the town, and admits he’s as guilty as anyone else of apathy. Sturrow puts it to the townspeople that all of them have lost something over the last two years thanks to Kimbrough and his bullying. Baldwin points out Summerton has done pretty well out of it all, but the old man disagrees. “I’ve lost more than you – I’ve lost my self respect.” The Summertons leave as Kimbrough appears and accuses Dr Sturrow of stirring up trouble. Morley and his boys make a stand and, outside, hold up the sheriff’s henchmen, leaving Allison and the nervous Swede Hansen to face off, one on one. “A man has to draw the line somewhere if he wants to like living with himself,” says Morley, though living with himself is not a problem the sheriff need contend with for long, and he knows it, as he walks stiff-legged toward Allison for the shoot-out.

Allison kills Hansen, but injures his shooting hand in the process and retreats to the stable. Sturrow attends; the hand will swell and within thirty minutes Allison won’t be able to hold a gun. In any case, Sturrow tells Allison, “change can’t come with bullets.” Allison is in no mood for the physician’s “philosophizing,” but asks him to take care of Sam’s burial.

At the hotel, Ruby begs Kimbrough to leave town with her, a town he has now lost. Kimbrough is adamant Sundown will soon be won back, but Ruby fears for his life. “There’s more to life than just staying alive,” he tells her, but intimates he’s just as scared as she. As Kimbrough makes his way through the saloon, Morley tells him he should leave town, but Kimbrough counters by saying Sundown hasn’t changed as much as Morley thinks, and he has a point; if Kimbrough kills Allison in the shoot-out, it’s likely the town would shrug its collective shoulders and allow Kimbrough to continue as before. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” reminds the now inebriated Zaron. “Tell Allison that. I’m in no hurry,” replies Kimbrough, deciding to prop up the bar awhile.

The moment can’t be delayed indefinitely however. Otis and Kimbrough stand each other a last drink, as the big man of town finally earns a little grudging respect. The tension mounts as Allison and Kimbrough approach each other along the main street, and a drum pounds like a giant’s pulse on the soundtrack. Allison is the better gunman, but is he as good with his left hand? The men reach for their guns – a shot rings out – and your writer must warn you of spoilers ahead.

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Ruby fired the shot, winging Kimbrough, who falls to the ground with an injured arm. Lucy clutches her beloved, weeping that she couldn’t risk his dying. This doesn’t impress Allison, now heartless and monomaniacal, who demands Kimbrough draw. “Haven’t you had enough hate for one day?” cries Ruby. “You were married, but you never had a wife!” Dr Sturrow agrees: “Ruby told you, and Sam told me,” that is, Mrs Allison was a raging sex addict who would’ve gotten it on with a buffalo. The doctor tells Kimbrough “you’re going to need patching up before you leave,” but his words could apply to Allison, and the whole town.

Later, Allison drinks alone at the end of the bar, as Kimbrough and Ruby leave town by carriage. Morley asks Allison to join in the celebrations, but Allison angrily refuses: “where I come from, there’s no to-do when a man acts like he’s supposed to.” Morley tries to buy Allison a drink, only for the Texan to lose control, smashing a bottle of whisky into the bar. To the astonishment of the assembled, Allison rides off into the sunset, taking Sam’s horse with him. Lucy and Dr Sturrow watch, and the doctor comments, “he changed Sundown, but we can’t do anything for him.” As Bernard F Dick puts it, “the real tragedy is Allison’s: while Kimbrough and his mistress leave for greener pastures, Allison leaves without his friend and the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity.”

Some of the performances in DAS are a little stiff or perfunctory, such as John Archer as Dr Sturrow, or John Litel as Charles Summerton, but plain characters are a catalyst for stronger roles elsewhere. Randolph Scott, in one of his more demonstrative performances, conveys well a man who believes himself on the straight and narrow, only to realize his path is crooked, by which time he has little choice but to continue on his way. John Caroll, as Tate Kimbrough, gives his character just enough room to grant what could be called a happy ending. The two female performers, Karen Steele and Valerie French, give somewhat similar performances, despite Ruby’s dubious history, though as Kimbrough reminds Lucy at one point, she’s “far from the wide-eyed innocent,” meaning the two characters are more similar than at first appearance. James Westerfield gives a pleasing performance as the careworn barman Otis, while character actors such as Vaughn Taylor, Guy Wilkerson and Richard Deacon are as enjoyable to watch as always.

The late Leslie Halliwell, for many years the British equivalent to Leonard Maltin, dismissed DAS as “routine…but efficiently done,” damning the film with faint praise for its brevity (the film runs at 77 minutes). If only more films were so efficient as to tell a story, loaded with moral implications, with barely a line wasted or a scene that doesn’t add to the bigger picture. The setting is routine, but the layers of texture and motivation which Boetticher and screenwriter Charles Lang Jnr pack into their picture are not. The film is not a classic, perhaps not even a classic western, but this shouldn’t stop anyone adverse to the genre from choosing to watch.

Efficiency comes at a price, and in DAS it comes in the form of coincidence. Dramatic though it is, it’s a little much to believe that after searching for three years, Allison and Sam ride into town on Kimbrough’s wedding day. We can forgive DAS such expediencies, as the film gives the viewer much to think about elsewhere, such as the effect of revenge on a man’s character, how tyranny depends on apathy to succeed, and how a relationship embarked upon for the wrong reasons can drag down more people than those directly involved. Despite the title, there is more than one decision made in Sundown on this fateful day, and even if they are the right decisions, no-one is guaranteed happiness tomorrow. DAS shows how a western can overcome its trappings and make you think, and evaluate the decisions you would choose in such situations.