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Following the superb Seven Men from Now (1956) and The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957) was the third of seven low-budget westerns starring Randolph Scott to be directed by Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s. Though spare little B films, most of these pictures are now regarded as among the finest westerns ever made, right up there with the work of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks. With little interference from the Columbia Pictures front office, Boetticher and his talented collaborators were thankfully left alone to do their jobs. As the director later said, "We had control of those pictures. Nobody thought they were anything, so nobody bothered us."
Usually in these films, Randolph Scott plays a man bent on seeking revenge for his dead wife, and his character is often borderline psychotic and similar in manner to James Stewart's obsessive characters in the Anthony Mann westerns. Further, Boetticher tends to integrate his characters into the barren landscapes so fully that it's as if they are outgrowths of it.
Decision at Sundown is a little different. While it has an offbeat, edgy Randolph Scott character, it's not so interesting in the landscape department; instead it keeps all the characters mostly confined to a small town. There the action plays out in a more verbose way than is the norm in Boetticher's movies.
The opening is a dandy, as Scott might say. A disheveled, stubbly-faced Scott holds up a stagecoach from the inside, gets out, and is met by his partner (Noah Beery, Jr.). The two ride off to the town of Sundown, where, we learn, a man named Tate Kimbrough is to be married that afternoon. Scott has ridden in to kill him for having an affair with his wife years earlier, which led to the wife's suicide, and Scott announces his intention at the wedding itself. From there until almost the end of the movie, Scott and Beery hole themselves up in a stable, with the corrupt sheriff (Kimbrough's top henchman) too cowardly to smoke them out, and the townspeople too weak to stand up to Kimbrough and his men. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Scott's wife was not the saint Scott believes. The static situation of this story does arouse a certain amount of suspense by the end, as a big part of the movie's substance is whether or not the townspeople will find the courage to take action. In the end, Kimbrough's fiance (Karen Steele) and mistress (Valerie French) figure prominently in an unusual twist.
Working without Burt Kennedy, his favorite screenwriter, Boetticher did what he could with this yarn, but the movie, decent as it is, just doesn't work quite as well as the others. Even Boetticher thought so. In an interview years later, he correctly said that the picture doesn't really revolve around Scott's character like in the other films: "It was the story of a town, the story of a lot of people," he said. Despite Boetticher's low opinion of Decision at Sundown, it was well received by some reviewers such as this notice from Variety: "Role is an offbeat one for Scott, but he carries off the gunman's frustrated rage well...this entry stacks up as one of the better of the new-fangled Westerns."
In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher wrote, "Decision at Sundown was the only Scott picture I have honestly considered - well - 'so-so.' My pal, [screenwriter] Charlie Lang, did the best he could with the story Columbia had bought. I didn't enjoy the sequence with Randy being drunk and, although we had a wonderful cast with John Carroll, Noah Beery, John Archer and Andrew Duggan, for me it was just another picture. But Karen was sensational! She looked like a million dollars; played the secondary part to perfection, and I really had her costumed to show off that unbelievable figure."
It should be noted that Boetticher never counted the turkey Westbound (1959) in his official list of Randolph Scott pictures; he made that film merely as a favor to Scott, who owed Warner Bros. a movie, and it has almost nothing in common with the others. As for Karen Steele, Boetticher had met her while preparing Decision at Sundown - and while he was also going through a divorce. Boetticher fell so hard for Steele that he put her in the cast in place of June Lockhart, whom he had previously decided on for the role.
Boetticher's affair with Steele would prove tempestuous, to say the least. Boetticher later recounted: "I guess it takes a young director a good while before he begins to understand that the girl he sees every evening up there on the screen is his version of what he wants from a woman. She's not for real. There you are, holding hands in the dark projection room with your leading lady, and simply adoring that gal in the film. Of course you are. You put her there! Everything she is doing up there is what you like... Well, brothers, grow up.... I ended up getting exactly what was coming to me - a bellyful of misery, absolutely ill about my family, and thoroughly disgusted and angry at my own stupidity. A motion picture director should only become involved with an actress in spite of her profession, not because of it."
After three years, the relationship ended, but by then, of course, so had Boetticher's marriage. Later he would marry and divorce Debra Paget before finally marrying Mary Chelde in a 1971 union that lasted 30 years, until his death.
As for Randolph Scott, he topped off his long Hollywood career with by far his best work in Budd Boetticher's films and his final feature, Ride the High Country (1962).
Producer: Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Charles Lang, Vernon L. Fluharty
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Randolph Scott (Bart Allison), John Carroll (Tate Kimbrough), Karen Steele (Lucy Summerton), Valerie French (Ruby James), Noah Beery, Jr. (Sam), John Archer (Dr. John Storrow).
by Jeremy Arnold