Friday, September 24, 2010

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Last Sunset

1961's The Last Sunset is just about as perverse a Western as you could imagine. Of Robert Aldrich's other movies, it most resembles Vera Cruz, with its dichotomy of good and bad men working together only to confront each other at the end. But that's almost too simple a comparison, because there's not really anything else in the director's portfolio quite like this movie. The obvious frame of reference is Douglas Sirk, and if that weren't explicit enough, The Last Sunset casts Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson to emphasize the point. This movie was work for hire for Aldrich, after a short exile in Europe after being blackballed by Harry Cohn. The primary motivating force behind it was star Kirk Douglas, who produced the film through his company. Douglas brought in screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after working with him on Spartacus. There's a lot of talent involved in this movie. There's also a lot of ego.

The story here resembles a Greek tragedy. Outlaw Brendan O'Malley (Douglas) is on the lam in Mexico, where he is reunited with his lost love, Belle (Malone), who has married another man and settled down. Belle's husband (Joseph Cotten) is a drunk and a failure. Her daughter (Carol Lynley) is taken with O'Malley. O'Malley has been chased south by Sheriff Dana Stribling (Hudson), who vows to take him back to Texas to face a murder charge. The whole cast heads north on a cattle drive. Belle's husband soon finds himself on the wrong end of gun, and O'Malley and Stribling vie for her affections, with Stribling earning Belle's hand. O'Malley then sets his sights on Belle's daughter, unaware of the fact that she's HIS daughter, too. The weight of incest weighs heavily on him as he confronts Stribling in a duel at the end of the movie. It's a bitches brew of passions, this film, which is why it's puzzling that it just kind of lays there on the screen, inert.

This is not among Aldrich's better film. You can sense a certain amount of disinterest in this film, but more than that, you can sense a certain amount of neglect, too. The opening sequence is a good example. It's a scene in which two riders follow each other, but doesn't reveal itself as a chase scene until it's over with. Aldrich has filmed it from such a distance that it's never clear that it's two riders rather than just one, nor does there seem to be any urgency in the cutting of the scene or in the music. Lazy. One gets the feeling that Aldrich's goal with this film was to stay out of the way of Kirk Douglas's ego. Douglas already had a history of clashing with his directors (he hired Stanley Kubrick for Spartacus after firing Anthony Mann a year before), and it's entirely possible that Aldrich needed the film as a calling card to get back in the game in Hollywood rather than in Europe. The trouble with this is that Douglas's presence in the movie is unrestrained, and as a vanity project, it gets kind of tedious. There are far too many scenes of Douglas just talking (and singing, even!) that undercut the image of the outlaw. It hurts the film; it fills it with too much of its leading man. It's also kind of icky watching his character make the moves on a sixteen year old in the back half of the film (even if it's the sort of thing that went on all the time in the West). For their parts, Hudson and Malone are fine, and the movie tries gamely enough to get them their scenes, but it's swimming upstream.

From an auteurist point of view, this is a hard film to place. Aldrich's own themes are still present, but they're filtered through Trumbo's lens and seem impersonal. (This is one of the drawbacks of auteurism, but since this series is about Aldrich, it's hard to avoid). Certainly, the director must have been attracted to the transgressive elements of the narrative. One wonders what he might have done with the film with another actor in the lead. Hard to say. In any event, Aldrich went back to Europe for another movie before returning to Hollywood and starting his golden period with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

No comments: