Budd Boetticher sure did like the idea of having Randolph Scott hunt down the man responsible for his wife’s death, a plot point he recycled from Seven Men From Now to Ride Lonesome to this film that fell in between the former two.
Trading the traveling frontier locations of those Westerns and the sparse landscape of The Tall T for a town-set film, Budd does some interesting things with this Scott collaboration but they don’t all come together. Written by Charles Lang instead of frequent Boetticher scribe Burt Kennedy (though he reportedly did a pass or two on the script), Decision at Sundown tries to twist some of the conventions of the genre but just doesn’t turn them far enough. Again, we’re presented with a hero looking for vengeance. As the movie progresses, we learn that his crusade may not be so holy after all and that our protagonist might be misguided or downright delusional. It’s a nice change-up from the righteous heroes presented in the other Scott films but some mistakes in the script prevent it from working. For instance, how is it possible that Scott and his sidekick, played by Noah Beery Jr., could have searched for Tate Kimbrough for three years without once discussing the reason for finding him? Yet, on this one afternoon in a matter of hours, everyone is revealed between the two men… I call that lazy storytelling.
And here’s another example of the slack narrative Lang and Boetticher put together: we’re told over and over again that the town of Sundown changed significantly when Tate took over but we’re provided no evidence of this. What exactly changed? The filmmakers don’t establish some totalitarian rule of Sundown or an environment where everyone walks on eggshells. I couldn’t figure out what negative effect Tate had on the town other than being powerful and honestly I don’t think the writer/director knew their backstory. I see a trend with this and Ride Lonesome of Boetticher getting lazy in his later films. The scripts aren’t as tight, the narratives aren’t as lean. It’s a shame too because there’s a lot of good here.
One of the best elements of the film is Beery Jr.’s performance as Sam. He creates a funny, heartwarming companion for Scott who never comes off as cartoonish. Andrew Duggan is also good as the sheriff-for-hire. But like Lonesome, Sundown lacks a strong villain and leading lady. John Carroll does serviceable work but he’s no Boone, he’s no Marvin, and even if the picture didn’t need a titan like one of those guys, it certainly needed a greater sense of threat. Karen Steele, who Budd would use again in Ride Lonesome, proves she’s just nice to look at and not much else. She has a couple moments but her performance is surface level. I blame Budd who chose his actresses so well as first but seems to have lost his touch along the way.
This is a film that could be remade again and improved upon. The right filmmaker, though there are few these days who would be right for it, could play with the idea of a misguided hero bent on revenge, much the same way the filmmakers of the recent Damsel flipped the script on male heroism. The right filmmaker could take these pieces and make a great picture.
P.S. The scene where Beery Jr. hooks the guy is now one of my favorites of the genre and I may have to steal it for one of my own films.
Watched on Tubi.