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Reviews Women of the West

The Last Sunset

The Last Sunset

Robert Aldrich

USA, 1961

Credits

Review by Brynn White

Posted on 08 August 2009

Source Rock Hudson Screen Legend Collection

Categories Women of the West

Dorothy Malone first sashayed into the pop culture consciousness as the coy bookstore proprietress who provides rye whiskey, shelter from the rain, and a little side-entertainment to Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Savvy, and commanding of the curve of her lips in a manner comparable to Gloria Grahame’s lift of the eyebrow, Malone immediately peaks Bogey’s attention in spite of her conservative bookworm dress. When he politely inquires about the necessity of her glasses, Malone casts to the corner of the frame to remove them and release her locks, sealing her starlet fate. “Why He-lllllloooo,” Bogart purrs to the newly emerging sex bomb.

A bottle blonde by the mid-50s, Malone became a B-movie princess under the tutelage of Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Don Siegel, Delmer Daves, and even the young Roger Corman. “A movie-movie star,” as Molly Haskell classifies her, Malone postured a matinee idol self-awareness that lent itself to many an auteur’s genre designs. She came to fruition under the inspired eye of Douglas Sirk; her pathologically proud tango to the tune of her father’s fatal staircase fall in Written on the Wind garnered a Best Supporting Oscar and another tragically free-falling role in Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels.

Gathering Malone and other veterans of Minnelli and Sirk melodramatic romps for an exploration of the Freudian, godless Technicolor sprawl of the American West, The Last Sunset is a fascinating genre-hybrid. Like The Tarnished Angels, Sunset deftly capitalizes on Malone’s weathered Barbie doll look; by the late-fifties she seemed to have a lifetime etched into her face, a soulful, lived-in kind of glamour that made her a believable Depression-era carnie parachutist and mule-whipping frontierswoman, bullet bra be damned. With an ample supply of sexual energy to burn she had palpably compensated for the limited appeal of Robert Stack and docile charisma of Rock Hudson, whom she would again beguile with wanton womanhood in Sunset.

But in Sunset, it’s the irrepressible Kirk Douglas who generates the initiating electricity. Shortly before his black-clad desperado O’Malley approaches Malone’s homestead she is presented in a striking tableau shot, pressed against the porch in her specialized sensual lugubriousness. The malaise wafts from each restless sigh. Holding court with her daughter Missy (Carol Lynley) and the ranch hands at her side, Malone’s Belle Breckinridge agrees to shelter and feed him despite the temporary absence of her husband.

Why did you come back?!” Belle breathlessly demands in her first moment alone with O’Malley. He announces that he’s been harboring a 16-year old flame for the 16-year old willing, wide-eyed youth he once knew her as, convinced of their overdue union as the key to his redemption. While visibly shaken, Belle remains firm, breaking O’Malley’s attempted kiss quickly. Her honest confession of “I’m afraid of you,” garners an obedient”Whatever you wish.” Not that we can trust the Kirk Douglas gleam in the eye.

It comes as little surprise when Mr. Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten, with his usual aplomb) returns as a simpleton Southern gentleman with one hand permanently on the bottle. A well-meaning patsy with a jolly refrain of “This time you can really count on me, Mrs. B!” he quickly elucidates Malone’s dissatisfaction. He jocularly bargains for O’Malley’s assistance with his cattle drive through Mexico. Meanwhile, Rock Hudson’s Stribling has been tailing O’Malley for a destined confrontation. But when they do meet prominently chin to chin, O’Malley works his malignant charm on the personal grudge-and-warrant bearing sheriff. Hudson eyes the Misses and joins on as herd chief, content to fireside jousts and verbal sparring with Douglas until their detour across the Rio Grande returns them to the justice of American soil.

At the reigns of this cross-the-border cattle drive is Robert Aldrich, whose curiously gender-coded career ranged from the testosterone epic The Dirty Dozen to the glorious (and courageous) horror-opera Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Fresh off Hollywood ennui chamber drama The Big Knife, Aldrich evocatively crafts the narrative thrust from the open spaces of the Western landscape itself. He spins a most elemental tale that looks more towards the existential spaghetti westerns than its John Wayne heritage.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo shamelessly indulges his mythological aspirations, beginning and ending with O’Malley. Douglas, avenging his second-billing, relishes the role of a perpetually on-the-run bandit who fancies himself more a displaced wanderer-aesthete (“Am I a killer? Most men in their hearts are killers… its not an easy question to answer.”) Bizarrely philosophizing on the sea in prose and taunting the others with his eerie proto-Morricone whistle, he is a self-aware Black Knight who unnecessarily advises the already-infatuated Missy, “Miss out on the nights, miss half your life.”

And oh those cobalt-blue Technicolor nights! They climax in a sighting of St. Elmo’s fire shimmering amongst the herd, a gleefully gauche manifestation of the characters’ fiery passions and frustrations. Secrets and quarrels abound in the abandoned ruins in which they set up camp each night; even the quickly disposed of Mr. Breckinridge has his own questionable background of betrayal, revealed only on the precipice of his bar brawl demise.

The family dog seems most affected by the death of their patriarch, as Belle’s mourning is merely indicated by a change from white shirt to black. But unlike the widowed Gail Russell, coerced into moral anguish over her affections for Randolph Scott in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now, Belle’s turn towards Stribling is deemed acceptable, a testament to her perseverance. “It seems to me like it’s the women who keep on living,” she asserts, “Men kill or get killed. And we bury them.”

She proves equally astute with the persistent O’Malley. Unimpressed by his claim that he has given her the greatest gift of all — the preservation of her youthful image in time — she defies his not so nuanced appreciation of her: “I have to be loved for what I am. I’m a woman! With the heart and mind, and flesh, of a woman. There’s so much more of me to be loved than that.” Despite O’Malley’s maritime braggadocio and Stribling’s cowboy know-how, Belle proves most in tune with the ways of the world (in part due to Malone’s forthright performance, which elevates the token love interest role past triangular composition centerpiece). She is consistently framed at a vantage point, in constant surveillance of the drama unfolding. All too aware of humankind’s contention-communion with nature, she has developed a simple code to live by and be respected, an arbiter of the motto “Don’t make trouble,” (outside forces provide enough on their own). Time and again she intercedes when the boys take to rowdy ego-bumping, once even by rifle fire and the ambivalent demand they do anything they want after they fulfill their contractual duties to her.

They celebrate upon the eve of their completion. Traipsing about the campfire with her new mate, Belle can rejoice in her earnings as well as she can suffer life’s lot. Her frenzied liberation is interrupted when Missy appears in her yellow dress of yore, the frock immortalized by O’Malley’s nostalgic reminiscences. Lynley’s rendering of impressionable adolescence is a tad simplistic, but ultimately critical to the Innocence and Experience binary the film arranges between daughter and mother. There are more sinister connotations to the appearance of St. Elmo’s Fire and Douglas’s shift in affections for the more buoyant lass is sure cause for the Shakespearian prophecy of a tempest on the horizon. A trio of harmonizing vaqueros serve as The Last Sunset’s resident Greek Chorus. They diegetically soundtrack Douglas’s fireside serenade, Missy’s primrose debutante debut, and the last word on the revelations surrounding the suspicious dent in her chin.

O’Malley escapes their watchful eye, fleeing to a forested Arcadia where he must confront the realization that the Ideal is quite literally of his own creation. After enjoying the ultimate of forbidden fruits, he’s signed the contract to his own destruction. Aldrich’s ensuing showdown between O’Malley and Stribling is a tour de force of expressionist editing, its emphatic delivery of fate in visceral contrast to the Rococo alterna-realm of the scene previous. An almost primordial starkness pervades this sundown as Belle fights her instinct to comfort Missy. She resigns to the burden of her secrets and the unavoidable commencement of her daughter’s own lessons in survival.

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