Wandering outlaw “Bren” O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) rides out of the dust of the hills to a remote Mexican ranch. He’s come looking for a girl he loved and left, Belle (Dorothy Malone) now grown up and married to alcoholic ex-Confederate officer John Breckenridge (Joseph Cotton), and with a tomboyish daughter, Missy (Carol Lynley) on the cusp of womanhood. Hot on O’Malley’s trail is Texas lawman Dana Stribling (top-billed Rock Hudson), who has very personal reasons for bringing him back across the border to justice.
Breckenridge needs help running his cattle herd up north through hostile territory. O’Malley signs up for one-fifth of the herd and a promise to Breckenridge to take his wife from him.
O’Malley talks Stribling into joining up as trail boss. The tension between the two men escalates further as Belle’s affections begin to turn toward Stribling, and Missy becomes more and more enamored with the charming killer O’Malley. Through the travails and dangers of the cattle drive (including a run-in with three unscrupulous rustlers, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland), the two men eventually develop a grudging respect for each other. But that may not be enough to prevent the inevitable showdown between them…
The Last Sunset carries on the “psychological western” tradition which began in the 1950s and was most notably developed by directors like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. It’s a pretty twisted tale with a lot of raw emotion laid out there for all to see, all woven into the standard western format of the epic cattle drive. Its edgy character dynamics make for interesting viewing. It has all the standard elements that western fans like myself love so much – fistfights, tense standoffs, gunplay, plentiful scenes of cowboys riding through panoramic vistas, dusty frontier towns, camaraderie around the campfire, and men and women forced by their own personal codes into making tough choices that will forever change the course of their lives. To that is added an extra layer of complexity, courtesy of a script that isn’t afraid to go to some dark, unsavory places.
The film alternates between sweeping outdoor actions scenes and set-bound ones where the busy interpersonal conflicts get played out. There’s a lot going on between the characters here, and the cast is well up to the challenge.
Kirk Douglas brings his customary skill in lending a potentially unlikeable character a humanity and honor that ultimately wins audience sympathy. His O’Malley comes off in the end as a free- spirited opportunist who has belatedly matured into a man seeking redemption, but still retains the dangerous hair-trigger temper that has brought him -- and those he comes in contact with -- so much trouble in life.
This emotional turmoil is clearly seen in the moment when, after a particularly brutal verbal humiliation by Stribling in front of Belle, O'Malley is attacked by the family's dog and slowly starts to strangle the animal.
That dog picked the wrong hombre to mess with.
His rage given full reign, he only lets go at the last second, and the dog scurries off, cowed but alive. We will see that face of grim malice again. It's a side of O'Malley that is always there, lurking below the grinning, brittle facade.
Yet it's balanced by the man's undeniable charm. O'Malley can be moved to poetry, talking seductively of the sea and the stars. He croons a love song in Spanish to the smitten Missy. He's friendly with the Mexican vaqueros, and is nothing if not straightforward in his dealings with Stribling.
It’s a rich character, and Douglas gives it the magnetic performance it deserves.
Rock Hudson can’t help but come off second-best next to such a dominant part as Douglas’, but he does what he can to add some interesting character flaws and gentle or humorous notes to the more standard heroic role he’s been given. He and Douglas spark off each other well.
The western version of PILLOW TALK this ain't.
Smoky-eyed Dorothy Malone is very good as a woman who’s still beautiful, despite her youth and innocence having been stripped away during a hard life, and who still retains strong passions beneath her cynical surface. Carol Lynley is cute as can be as the daughter who falls for O’Malley, her rather flat, doe-eyed line readings a good fit for the teenage awkwardness of her character. And Joseph Cotton is unsurprisingly good as the drunken husband, his sad-eyed dignity imparting a whole backstory of self-loathing and disillusionment with minimal screentime. Veteran character actor Reegis Toomey is rather wasted in a small role as the Breckenridge ranch foreman.
Besides Douglas, the real star of the show is the excellent script by Dalton Trumbo (based off a novel by Howard Rigsby). Douglas was instrumental in getting the formerly blacklisted Trumbo back in the film game by fighting for him to receive on-screen credit for Spartacus.
Trumbo paid him back with fine scripts for The Last Sunset and Douglas' subsequent “modern” western, Lonely Are the Brave.
Director Robert Aldrich was already a veteran of tough adventure pictures by this point (including Apache, Vera Cruz and Attack, not to mention the hard-hitting Mike Hammer noir Kiss Me Deadly), and he does a good job juggling the action without losing sight of the drama. My only complaint would be that the exciting sandstorm fight between Douglas and Neville Brand and Jack Elam is staged in a way that makes it very hard to tell which of the two bad guy brothers is killed, and which escapes.
Overall, though, The Last Sunset is a strong and unusual piece of work and is definitely worth seeking out.
DVD Note: Another title in the 3-disc, 5 film Rock Hudson Screen Legend Collection boxset from Universal. The image on the DVD is quite nice, if a little faded in color in some scenes (this might stem from a more “dusky” look inherent in the original film elements, but could also be a case of an unrestored master being used).
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