Fri 19 Jul 2013
MICHAEL CARDER – Decision at Sundown. Macrae Smith, hardcover, 1955. Ace Double D-160, paperback, no date . Bound dos-à-dos with Action Along the Humboldt, by Karl Kramer. First serialized in Ranch Romances magazine, January 1955. (Part Three can be found online here.)
DECISION AT SUNDOWN. Columbia, 1957. Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Valerie French, Noah Beery Jr., John Archer, Andrew Duggan. Based on the novel by Michael Carder (screen credit given to Vernon L. Fluharty). Director: Budd Boetticher.
My mention a while back of Jim O’Mara’s Wall of Guns elicited a comment from James Reasoner (a worthy western pen-slinger in his own right) revealing that O’Mara was actually one Vernon Fluharty, who also wrote westerns under the name Michael Carder, among them Decision at Sundown (Macrae Smith, 1955; originally serialized in Ranch Romances, January 1955) which two years later at Columbia studios was turned into one of Budd Boetticher’s most complex and least satisfying westerns.
The book Decision at Sundown bears some interesting similarities to Wall of Guns; in both a bitter loner rides into town seeking revenge, and in both he runs into a range fraught with intrigue: crooked locals grabbing for power, ranchers nursing long-simmering grudges, neighborhood bad guys, loyal friends and a woman who should hate him but finds herself strangely attracted to the handsome stranger (yawn).
The difference is that Wall of Guns was enlivened by some deeper-than-usual supporting players whose actions — whether short-sighted, passionate or surprisingly thoughtful — sent the book places where lesser tales don’t go.
In Decision at Sundown however, the ensemble remains depressingly stale: Tate Kimbrough, the town tyrant, is just a double-dyed rat; Lucy, his intended bride comes off like Daisy Mae on the printed page, too purely wholesome and impulsive to believe; Swede and Spanish, the hired guns are nothing but thug-uglies, and — and so it goes: the blowsy ex-mistress, the gruff doctor, grizzled rancher, doughty pardner … they all remain firmly in the cookie-cutter.
There’s a trace of depth as the plot develops and our hero suddenly finds his revenge turned laughable, but it’s quickly drowned in the shallow characters charged with putting it across.
When the novel reached Hollywood two years later, director Budd Boetticher and writer Charles Lang (story credit goes to Vernon Fluharty) picked up on that particle of originality and ran with it, adding some depth to the characters along the way and coming up with a B-western that if not completely satisfying, is at least original enough to remember.
The hero here is Randolph Scott, and when he rides into town it’s with the easy assurance of two decades of westerns behind him, abetted here by Boetticher’s graceful camerawork and feel for action. Unfortunately, he and the viewer get quickly mired in the story’s rather static complications, and the drama plays out in a few rather cramped and confining sets.
When one thinks of Budd Boetticher’s films, it’s with appreciation of his feel for characters framed against an open, rugged landscape, dealing warily with their issues and each other as they traverse hostile terrain that reflects some inner conflict. (Or as Andrew Sarris put it, part allegorical odysseys and part floating poker games.) But in this movie, we’re just stuck in a stable.
Stylist that he was, Boetticher managed a few fine moments, notably a couple of deliberately theatrical showdowns in the middle of Main Street, first with Andrew Duggan metaphorically stripping himself down for the performance, and later with John Carroll trying to hide his fears and live up to the Bad Guy’s Code of Conduct, murky as that may be.
In fact, Boetticher’s attention to this stock character almost brings the film to life. We first see Tate Kimbrough in standard attire for dress heavies in shoot-em-ups: fancy vest, dark coat, and the snide moustache worn by thousands of B-western baddies before him.
Then he starts to show some depth; he’s thoughtful and loving to his trampy ex-girlfriend, frank about himself and his past with his bride-to-be, and toward the end, when he has to go out and face Randolph Scott alone (a pre-doomed enterprise in films of this sort) there’s a rather touching moment when he confesses his fears to his ex-gal (a fine performance from Valerie French, who specialized in this sort of thing) but goes out there anyway.
I said this was a complex film and I meant it. I also said it was unsatisfying and I meant that too. In Westerns, action is traditionally cathartic, but in this one it simply becomes irrelevant, leading to an ending that Boetticher seems unprepared to handle.
There’s a lot of stage business between the dramatic climax and the actual ending of the film, and it dilutes the impact of what could have been a uniquely powerful Western. And that’s kind of a shame.
Note: To read Mike Grost’s extensive comments on this same film, check out his website here.