Rock Hudson is after Kirk Douglas in this Robert Aldrich western.
After reading posts about Dorothy Malone’s birthday recently, I randomly pulled one of her movies out of my collection, Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961), a western in which she stews and stings over past hurts inflicted by Kirk Douglas, guards a secret and starts a new romance with Rock Hudson. Douglas plays a charismatic gunfighter who shows up at Malone’s isolated ranch. They were an item years ago but Douglas’ violent tendencies drove her away. The memory of Malone as “The Pretty Girl in the Yellow Dress” is one he’s held on to for all these years (the tune of the same name is heard throughout the film). The Malone he meets now is mother to a teenaged Carol Lynley and wife to alcoholic Civil War veteran Joseph Cotten. Douglas wants into her life and makes a deal with Cotten to find him a good trail boss in exchange for one fifth of the cattle and Malone. Douglas knows a good trail boss is on the way, because he’s heard that Rock Hudson is hot on his trail, seeking justice for damage Douglas has done to his family. When Hudson arrives and gets a look at Malone, he agrees that justice can wait and the enemies agree to work together until the end of the cattle drive. The rest of the film is about their rivalry for Malone’s affections, Lynley’s crush on Douglas, and the men reassessing their opinions of each other after gestures both heroic and downright dirty. Still, they vow that once the cattle are safely into Texas, their showdown occurs at the first sunset.
Despite those fine actors, the makings of an interesting psychological western, and a writer (Dalton Trumbo) and director who were capable of greatness, The Last Sunset never builds up to takeoff speed and hits bumps with ineffective arrangement and some unconvincing performances. It has the feeling of a soap opera, with all the crisscrossing romantic entanglements and one juicy revelation that seismically shifts the love quadrangle and determines Douglas’ future. Without giving away that surprise (which is not too hard to guess once you see the casting and get into the film), a really disturbing implication is made, given the previous night’s scene, all the signs about Douglas being forceful and impulsive toward women, plus his reaction to the news which is much more horror and regret than simple shock.
Neither Hudson nor Douglas get much meat in their roles, nor do they fully convince as the hard vindictive lawman and the tortured but very fashionable outlaw. Douglas fares a touch better just cruising on presence and had enough little touches that helped make scenes interesting, like carrying on a cute conversation with Lynley while also having a serious one with Regis Toomey. Overall though the potentially great team up of these two leading men is a disappointment.
Malone and Cotten manage to do a lot with their material. Malone shows interest in and clearly has some fond memories of Douglas, but realizes that despite his arguments to the contrary, his worst qualities are still front and center and he’s grown more complicated with age and bitterness. After years of emptiness in her marriage to Cotten, she seems to get younger as she falls for Hudson, while still caring enough for Douglas to not want him gunned down. She does a good job balancing melancholy, caution and love, and the only aspect lacking with her character is that she seems to have no relationship with her daughter. Cotten plays a pathetic, broken Confederate oldtimer with a bottle always on hand, a gentlemanly manner and a broad smile to cover his pain. When he’s called out on his wartime cowardice in a bar and ordered to drop his pants to prove he has that injury he keeps telling tall tales about, his humiliation is uncomfortable to watch.
You’ve also got baddies Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland, who join the cattle drive with their sights set on the attractive ladies. After a promising introduction however, the three make their big move during a blinding dust storm while Douglas and Hudson argue over a quicksand rescue, and thus ends their screen time. It’s a shame actors like this (and Toomey too for that matter) were wasted in roles and scenes that feel so underdeveloped.
The movie looks good, with the hilltop ranch, the long trek through the desert, a stop at an abandoned church, an all out brawl and that wild dust storm. There’s some more danger brought in when Douglas shoots an Indian for no reason, and Hudson is able to settle the matter to further establish him as the good, responsible choice for Malone. The last sunset shootout, the centerpiece of the story, is overdone and predictable, but the arrangement of events have really left no other way out of the story, so that what should have been a tense and suspenseful choice between sacrifice or self-preservation plays out as flat and lifeless. Ambitious and definitely worth a view for fans of the actors and the director but for me ranks no more than average.