Sunday, January 25, 2009

Decision At Sundown

Decision At Sundown is a highly unusual Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Western in which Scott's ordinarily driven but heroic persona is tainted, twisted, by an irrational, all-consuming hatred. Boetticher keeps the tension high in this mostly static, action-free chamber Western, in which the emotional and philosophical undercurrents of the story are developed slowly and patiently. Scott plays Bart Allison, a man overwhelmed by a desire for revenge. He arrives in the town of Sundown, along with his pal Sam (Noah Beery), after three years of searching for a man named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll). It's not clear at first why exactly Bart wants revenge, though it's hinted, with increasing pointedness, that it might have something to do with Bart's wife, Mary — which makes it ironic that when Bart and Sam arrive in town, Kimbrough is getting married later that day to local girl Lucy (Karen Steele). Bart quickly stirs up trouble, breaking up the wedding by announcing that he plans to make Lucy a widow by the end of the day. In the ensuing chaos, Bart and Sam hole up in the stables, surrounded on all side by Kimbrough's goons: Bart's target basically controls the town, keeping even the sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) in his employ.

This situation sets up the rest of the movie, which quickly settles into a taut stalemate, with the two heroes trapped inside and Kimbrough's men arrayed against them outside. What becomes increasingly apparent, however, is that Bart's quest for revenge is actually a fool's errand: he blames Kimbrough for the death of his wife, several years earlier, but it's soon clear that his wife was not a virtuous woman, that she cheated on him with Kimbrough and many other men, and eventually committed suicide in disgrace. The script has an uncomfortable misogynist streak, a tendency to view women as tramps at worst, fools at best, and at one point Bart even assaults Lucy, spanking her and tearing her dress when she dares to suggest that what happened was his wife's fault as well as Kimbrough's. At the beginning of the film, Bart is a conventional Scott hero, likable and taciturn, with a sly smile that signals his amusement at anyone who dares to mess with him. Things quickly begin to unravel, however, and Bart begins to seem somewhat unhinged. Even his "plan" to confront Kimbrough reeks of lunacy, a lack of foresight that gets him trapped in the stables for the remainder of the film. As the tension builds, it becomes harder and harder to sympathize with the stubborn, angry, vengeance-seeking Bart, who basically makes his own mess and then has to sit in it.

With the film's sympathies tearing away from Bart, who is ostensibly playing the role of the hero, the narrative centers more on the town as a whole. The story is not actually the usual Western tale about a hero seeking revenge against a bad man to right a long-ago wrong, but is a different kind of Western fable, basically High Noon in reverse, with the townsfolk awakening to the rottenness in their midst and coming together around a man who neither wants nor appreciates their help. If the film is not actually about the hero, who ends the film consumed by feelings of hatred, rage and loss, it's about the way the town's people collectively relearn about the value of self-respect. Kimbrough may not have been wholly responsible for the death of Bart's wife, but he is undoubtedly a malevolent influence in Sundown, keeping the people docile with his enforcers posing as lawmen. Led by the righteous local doctor (John Archer), the people of Sundown eventually redeem themselves by speaking up for once, fighting back, not letting the crimes of Kimbrough and his men go unnoticed or unpunished.

Throughout all this, even Kimbrough himself is humanized, as the film's sympathies become more diffuse, harder to trace. It's unclear from the beginning what exactly Kimbrough has done to the people of the town, concretely, other than buy off the sheriff and make some thugs into deputies. He's also a womanizer, keeping company with his longtime girl Ruby (Valerie French) even as he prepares for his wedding; but then, the film's perspective on such things tends to blame the women far more than the men. In the end, Kimbrough is seen as an ordinary man like any other, afraid to face off against Bart but willing to do so anyway to maintain his pride. There are several long scenes leading up this final showdown, with Kimbrough first letting his mistress Ruby know about his inner fears before making more of a show of bravery and steel in the bar downstairs, with the townsfolk all around him. Kimbrough is ultimately more of a fleshed-out, human character than the rigid, unyielding Bart is ever allowed to be, further blurring the boundaries between hero and villain.

This ambiguity is among the film's most interesting components, and Boetticher at every point seeks to problematize traditional Western dynamics, shifting from the usual hero/villain dichotomy to a much more complex situation where everyone in town is equally guilty and complicit. The final gunfight sequences are as suspenseful as expected, with long build-ups for a lightning-fast payoff, though in the last showdown, Boetticher purposefully builds towards an anticlimax to dissipate the accumulating tension. The film is largely static, and sometimes overly talky in its philosophical discourses, and its undercurrents of misogyny are often hard to stomach. It's nevertheless an interesting variation on Western norms from a director who was always thinking about such formal questions.

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