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The Last Sunset
IMDB Rating: 6.8/10 from 1,685 votes
Release: 7 June 1961 (USA) /

The Last Sunset

Genre: Action, Romance, Western
Director: Robert Aldrich,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: Brendan O'Malley arrives at the Mexican home of old flame Belle Breckenridge to find her married to a drunkard getting ready for a cattle drive to Texas. Hot on O'Malley's heels is lawman Dana Stribling who has a personal reason for getting him back into his jurisdiction. Both men join Breckenridge and his wife on the drive. As they near Texas tensions mount, not least because Stribling is starting to court Belle and O'Malley is increasingly drawn by her daughter Missy. Written by Jeremy Perkins <jwp@aber.ac.uk>

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Critic Reviews

Enemies Bren O'Malley and Dana Stribling confront each other in Mexico, and are then hired by the Breckenridge family to help drive a herd of cattle north to Texas. The two men observe a truce which will last until they have crossed the Rio Grande, but at sunset on the first day back in Texas, there will be a reckoning. For one of them, it will be the last sunset.

Made in 1961, this film is a fine example of an art form that was dying - the 1950's western. John Wayne carried on making them for a few years more (and arguably up to "The Shootist"), but by 1964, three years after this picture, the Spaghetti Western had arrived, and the genre was transformed for ever. The 1950's in Europe and America was an era of social stability - some would say stagnation - and the western reflected the values of the rigid, disciplined society which produced it. Plots did not vary much, innovation not being something that audiences craved, and storylines turned on predictable devices like cattle stampedes, indians on the skyline, fast draws and a man doing what a man's got to do. This film happens to contain all of these stock ingredients.

Man's desire for woman is a theme running through the story in deftly-worked permutations. Dalton Trumbo's better than average script has older men lusting after younger women, men harbouring fantasies of lost love, bad guys leering at decent matrons, and much more. Belle is made a chattle in her husband's droving contract, and receives a new proposal of marriage under the flying buttresses of a Mexican church. In keeping with the film's symbolic structure, she reserves her response until the Rio Grande has been crossed (Mexico seems to preserve the Americans in aspic, preventing them from advancing their plans, just as the church architecture encloses Belle and her lover).

"The Last Sunset" is several cuts above the average western. Its plot situation, the pursuit of one man by another and the involvement of a ranching family, is neatly established at the outset with minimal dialogue. The immediate sexual electricity between O'Malley and Belle engages the viewer, and O'Malley's little comic touches convey his charm and 'open him up' for the viewer. Belle's inner conflict is quickly made plain for us, and O'Malley's behaviour (graciously allowing her to leave the barn) is psychologically interesting, suggesting that he is certain of her. We want to know more about these characters. Much is achieved with the merest of glances, as when Breckenridge tells O'Malley "everything that's mine is yours", and O'Malley darts a look at Belle, or the glance thrown by Stribling when he realises why O'Malley is taking the appalling risk of returning to Texas.

Expert editing by Michael Luciano enhances the effectiveness of the movie considerably. When O'Malley teaches the Julesburg Kid a lesson on horseback, elliptical cutting skilfully evokes the Kid's sense of dizziness and confusion. At the final shoot-out, the accelerating rapidity of the cuts increases the tension brilliantly. There is one small lapse at the start of the cattle drive - the pick-up shot of O'Malley fording the river (overcast sky) does not match the master shot (bright sunshine).

O'Malley's song, "Pretty Girl In The Yellow Dress", runs through the film as a motif. It is a central symbol, because O'Malley's idealistic and doomed vision of Belle is transferred to Missy when she dons the dress - "a new smell to follow".

Admirable though it is, the film does have some weak points. Would Breckenridge REALLY accept O'Malley's second precondition? Would the wily O'Malley REALLY shoot the indian so rashly? The grassy bank on which O'Malley and Missy recline is patently a studio fabrication, bearing no resemblance to the parched earth of the location shots. Stribling's final comment on the derringer is clumsy overkill. We all got the point.

Good use is made of locations, especially old Spanish architecture like the crumbling aqueduct. The brick arches seem to be enveloping the Americans, just as their lives are stalled by being here in Mexico. Attractively-shot silhouettes adorn the dust-storm sequence, particularly during the quicksand episode. Once back in Texas, O'Malley is emblematically shut in by corral fences, a man left with nowhere to go. The film's great punchline, delivered by Belle on the verandah, is truly shocking.

Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson, O'Malley and Stribling respectively, appear above the title (Douglas's own production company, named after his mother, financed the picture). Douglas is appealing and charismatic in one of his many 'generous-hearted bad guy' roles. Hudson is perfectly adequate in the straight-down-the-line part of Stribling, and looks terrific. The character of Belle, with her internal contradictions and the aura of having been buffeted by life, calls for an actress with both beauty and intelligence. Dorothy Malone is ideal in the role. Carol Lynley does very well as Missy, making a great transition from gawky kid to radiant woman. If Joseph Cotten fails to shine, it must be said that the part of Breckenridge is a dreary one. Neville Brand and Jack Elam turn in stock performances: as jobbing bad guys throughout the 1950's and early 60's, they must hardly ever have needed to shave.

Verdict - Interesting western with powerful denouement.

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