« Vera Cruz | Main | Denver Film Festival - The Line-Up »

October 05, 2021

The Last Sunset

last sunset.jpg

Robert Aldrich - 1961
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Seeing The Last Sunset within days of Vera Cruz, I was reminded that the films share similarities beyond director Aldrich, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and the brief presence of villainous Jack Elam. Both films take place in Mexico not long after the Civil War, with men still wearing the remains of their respective uniforms. Some of the locations in The Last Sunset, with stone buildings in ruins, resemble those in Vera Cruz. It is not hard to imagine Burt Lancaster or Gary Cooper from the older film crossing paths with Kirk Douglas or Rock Hudson. Douglas' outfit of black hat, shirt and pants may well have been taken from Lancaster. As his own producer, Douglas was canny enough to also give himself second billing to Hudson, not only the biggest star at Universal at the time, but also the top male star at the time the film was released.

For the first several minutes, Aldrich is able to present a grubby, unshaven Hudson in pursuit of Douglas across an unwelcoming landscape of rocks and desert. Grittiness gives way to glamour at the first shot of Dorothy Malone, lounging against the porch of the glorified shack she calls home. It's hard to detect that Malone's frontier wife has had a hardscrabble existence with her carefully windswept hair, eye shadow and lipstick. As Malone's daughter, Carol Lynley could pass easily for any teenage American girl of that era in her blue jeans. Filmed before Lynley's starring role in Return to Peyton Place, but released approximately a month later, Lynley had rounder cheeks making her look slightly younger than her actual age. Hudson is clean shaven after that introductory scene, as is Douglas. Only Joseph Cotton, as Malone's alcoholic husband, joins the other men in supporting roles, the cowboys, war veterans and wanderers with only a passing connection to the frills of civilization like a bath, a shave and a change of clothes.

The Last Sunset is mostly remembered now for the final gunfight between Hudson and Douglas, and its influence on Sergio Leone. And it is a bravura piece of filmmaking. The majority of the film is not as visually dynamic as Vera Cruz. I suspect that contractually, Aldrich had to shoot a specific number of close-ups of his two leading stars. Where one sees Aldrich's hand is when he is able to film his actors together within the frame. The first scene of Malone alone with Douglas provides the back story of their relationship. The camera moves within lengthy two-shots, as Malone and Douglas simultaneous move around each other as in a dance. Because they are visually contained together within the frame, but we also see how they react to each other, Aldrich shows the combustibility of their relationship. I am not familiar with the source novel, but narrative is crammed with revelations of family relationships suggesting an attempt at something like Greek tragedy with an ending that may be too Freudian for its own good. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, the second of three written for Douglas in between Spartacus and Lonely are the Brave.

I had never gotten around to reading Alain Silver and James Ursini's study, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, but it is quoted quite heavily in Nick Pinkerton's commentary track. I bring this up as the book delves more deeply into Aldrich's visual style and use of unifying characters within the camera frame. Along with the usual overviews of the main stars and some of the supporting actors, Pinkerton reads from news items posted at the time of production. Pinkerton also quotes from Bosley Crowther's New York Times review, equally dismissive here as he was towards Vera Cruz six years earlier. Ultimately, Pinkerton positions The Last Sunset as a transitional film, both in the way Aldrich would choose to shoot films where he would favor using two cameras simultaneously, and as a work representing some of the shifts in the American western.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 5, 2021 06:46 AM