Sturm und Drang Under Western Skies

One of the more ambitious and offbeat Westerns of the early sixties, The Last Sunset (1961) is an odd duck that has its admirers and detractors with several participants of the film – director Robert Aldrich, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and star Kirk Douglas – being the most vocal about its flaws and unrealized potential. For a frontier tale that attempts to emulate a Greek tragedy on the range, there is an abundance of plot twists and varying acting styles to keep you riveted to the sight of this often visually stunning box office failure. Themes of revenge, incest, and cowardice infused with an overarching cod psychology are baked in a heavy casserole that includes dust storms, a cattle stampede, quicksand, trigger-happy rustlers, embittered ex-Confederates in the post-Civil War years, marauding Indians and a natural phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire. Even Leonard Maltin in his capsule movie review for his popular guide calls it “Strange on the Range.”

The project, based on Howard Rigsby’s novel Sundown at Crazy Horse, was purchased by Kirk Douglas for his production company Bryna and set for filming in Mexico. Co-producer Edward Lewis suggested Robert Aldrich as a possible director and the latter soon contacted Douglas via a letter that read, “I am completely dedicated to the hope that somehow, some way, you will decide that it is in our collective best interests that I direct “The Last Sunset.” I have no possible way or wish to influence your final decision, but…if there were ever a happy marriage between the right time, the real need and the true talent to exploit another’s efforts in your own behalf…Now is such a time. I have to do your picture, and I have to do it better than any picture you have ever made before.” The latter statement was rather bold considering Douglas’s previous films and the fact that he was still in the midst of the final editing of Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Dalton Trumbo, who had done wonders with the script for Spartacus, had greatly impressed Douglas with the quality of his screenwriting and his creative suggestions. Once Trumbo was on board, Douglas concentrated on the remainder of the casting which posed a brief problem in assigning the main female character, Belle Breckenridge. He offered the part to Lauren Bacall, who he enjoyed working with in Young Man With a Horn (1950) and also because he wanted to repay some past kindness she had shown him when they were in drama school together. “Betty’s reaction was strange,” Douglas recalled in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son. “She was indignant. She berated me for even submitting the script to her. I said, “Betty, it’s the leading female role. You have Rock Hudson in love with you, Kirk Douglas in love with you. I think it’s a very good part.” She was not convinced. I gave the part to Dorothy Malone, who did a very good job.”

Kirk Douglas plays the villainous Brenda O’Malley in The Last Sunset (1961), a psychological western written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Robert Aldrich.

The storyline of The Last Sunset has a narrative that invites comparison to some of the more intense psychological Westerns of Anthony Mann. Lawman Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) is on the trail of Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas), an Irishman who killed his brother-in-law during a barroom brawl over Stribling’s sister. The lawman’s compulsion to bring O’Malley to justice leads him across the border into Mexico where he finds O’Malley in the employment of John Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), a cattleman who needs a good trail boss to help drive his herd to market in the Texas town of Crazy Horse. Stribling vows to bring O’Malley to justice once they cross the border into Texas and for the rest of their journey a huge tension builds between them, partially aggravated by their mutual attraction to Breckenridge’s wife Belle (Dorothy Malone). Secrets from the characters’ lives begin to emerge during the cattle drive such as the fact that O’Malley and Belle had a passionate affair years earlier or that Belle tries to keep her virginal daughter Missy (Carol Lynley) away from O’Malley. Or the fact that ex-Confederate John Breckenridge abandoned his troops during battle which explains his constant alcoholic state. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes Breckenridge encounters some men from his former regiment in a bar and is publicly humiliated by them as they demand he strip down and reveal a physical detail on his rear that confirms his cowardice.

Director Robert Aldrich (right) on the set of The Last Sunset (1961) with Joseph Cotten and Carol Lynley.

In his biography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten stated, “Not only was I the cuckold husband of Dorothy Malone and the father of Carol Lynley (at least I thought I was her father), but I was a traitor, a rat who had deserted his command in the Confederate Army and carried a scar on one buttock eternally to stigmatize the shame. (Aldrich and the producer promised never to release this film in Tidewater as long as my mother drew breath.)” Cotten also recounted the difficulties of shooting a cattle drive on film: “There were literally thousands of them being prodded and driven past the cameras, but their behavior was so completely uninhibited that they could be photographed from no angle whatsoever. Always in this sea of trotting longhorns or shorthorns or no horns, there were several very prominent horny horns humped up on the back of their neighbors, or rather their neighbor’s wives.”

A scene from the Robert Aldrich western The Last Sunset (1961) starring Carol Lynley (left), Rock Hudson (center), Kirk Douglas and Dorothy Malone.

On a personal note, Cotten had a much worse time of it adjusting to the Mexico shoot than the other cast members. According to Kirk Douglas in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Cotten “was very finicky, brought canned food from America, drank only bottled water. He never touched any food from Mexico. And, of course, he was the first one to become sick. He became violently ill, completely dehydrated. You can take all the precautions in the world and still get the bug.”

The Last Sunset (1961) directed by Robert Aldrich shown: director Robert Aldrich, Kirk Douglas

Just as the main characters of The Last Sunset were seething with hostility and animosity toward each other, the same emotional state was reflected on the actual set of the film as Douglas and Aldrich quickly found themselves at odds on how the movie should be made. According to Douglas in his autobiography, “Robert Aldrich arrived in Mexico with five writers – all working on other projects. I couldn’t believe that a director who was so desperate to direct a picture with two major stars would arrive on location and work on other projects. I was furious. I told him to concentrate on the movie he was being paid to do. I made him get rid of the writers. Aldrich never forgave me for that. It was a cool relationship, but he proved himself a competent director.”

THE LAST SUNSET, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, 1961

On the set tensions weren’t helped by Trumbo’s uneven and often problematic script. According to Trumbo’s biographer Bruce Cook, The Last Sunset “seems uncharacteristically haphazard in conception and execution, as though it were thrown together all at once – which, in fact, it was. It didn’t get the rewriting that it deserved because by that time Trumbo was involved in another important project. Or, as Kirk Douglas tells the story: “It was a curious morality those guys on the blacklist developed. We were pushing him on this project [The Last Sunset], and Trumbo turned to me and said, ‘Look, you know while I was doing Spartacus I was screwing Otto Preminger [on potential scripts for Pierre Boulle’s The Other Side of the Coin and Ugo Pirro’s The Camp Followers]. Now it’s your turn to get screwed.’ You had to admire him and take that from him because he was so direct. There was absolutely no bullsh*t from him.”

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in his preferred workplace environment – the bathtub.

The director offered his own take on The Last Sunset in Robert Aldrich: Interviews (edited by Eugene L. Miller and Edwin T. Arnold) where he called the movie, “A very unpleasant experience. The whole thing started badly, went on badly, ended badly. Dalton Trumbo had done a screenplay. This was just towards the end of the McCarthy period and he had yet to be given a screen credit, though Preminger had promised him one for Exodus. He quit his concentration on The Last Sunset to concentrate on the Preminger picture and by the time he came back to our film it was too late to save it. Now I think that all things considered, Trumbo was 2000 percent right. There was an enormous principle involved here. He was the first writer to break through the blacklist, he was going to force a change in the whole California concept of blacklisted writers. That was certainly much more important than making Kirk Douglas look well, but it didn’t solve the problem of making The Last Sunset any better.”

Dalton Trumbo on his way to jail after being convicted as one of the Hollywood Ten in June 1950.

Trumbo was indeed the first of the blacklisted writers of the infamous Hollywood Ten to achieve an on-screen credit after his arrest and imprisonment years earlier.  Both Douglas and Otto Preminger claim credit for breaking the blacklist by insisting on a screen credit for Trumbo but technically Spartacus marked the first appearance of Trumbo’s name since the blacklist – the film opened in October of 1960 and Exodus followed it in December of that year. However, Preminger had actually beaten Douglas to the punch by announcing to the press that Trumbo was working on the Exodus screenplay, an admission that occurred many months before Douglas also told the media that Trumbo would be given a credit for Spartacus. Ironically, it was the Writers Guild who gave Douglas an award in 1991 for breaking the blacklist and never acknowledged Preminger who had already died by that point. Following on the heels of both films, The Last Sunset also carries a Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit though I haven’t been able to determine if this was the case when it first hit theatre screens in 1961.

Rock Hudson plays Dana Stribling, the hero of The Last Sunset (1961), written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Robert Aldrich.

If Aldrich had issues with Trumbo and Douglas on The Last Sunset, he had nothing but positive things to say about the film’s other male lead: “Rock Hudson emerged more creditably from it than anyone. I found him to be terribly hard-working and dedicated and very serious: no nonsense, no “I’ve got to look good.” Or “Is this the right side?” If everybody in that picture, from producer to writer to other actors, had approached it with the same dedication it would have been a lot better. That’s not my way of saying that Mr. Hudson is Laurence Olivier, but he was certainly much more honestly involved in that venture than anybody else I can think of.”

A publicity shot of the four main characters in Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961) from the left: Kirk Douglas, Carol Lynley, Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson.

Hudson was actually the bigger box office star than Douglas at the time of The Last Sunset “so of course he had top billing,” Douglas wrote in his autobiography. “Universal, financing and releasing the picture, worried about the parts being even. We had to beef up Rock’s part, put in scenes that really didn’t suit the story, just to satisfy Universal. I had a problem working with Rock Hudson that I did not understand at the time. He avoided any kind of direct contact with me – his co-star also the producer, the boss. I tried everything I could to make him feel comfortable. But Rock always had a strange attitude toward me, never dealt with me directly. He would make demands to the studio. Then the studio would come to me and say, “You have to do this and this.” When I saw him socially, it was all pleasant. But there was never any feeling of friendship – or of animosity. Just this strange distance and neutrality.”

One thing that is striking about The Last Sunset is the dramatic contrast between Douglas’s larger-than-life overplaying and Hudson’s much more subtle and shaded performance. I’ve never thought of Hudson as a very good actor in his earlier films; he always seemed somewhat artificial and stiff on screen. But he certainly loosened up and developed a gift for comedy in his pairings with Doris Day in the sixties. You can even see glimpses of this more relaxed, playful style in some of his work for Douglas Sirk such as the costume adventure Captain Lightfoot (1955). And, in 1966, Hudson would give one of his finest performances in the haunting Seconds by director John Frankenheimer. Still, he’s quietly convincing and impressive as the steely pursuer in The Last Sunset.

The Last Sunset (1961) Directed by Robert Aldrich Shown from left: Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone

Douglas, on the other hand, chews the scenery with gusto. Dressed all in black in case you weren’t sure who the bad guy was supposed to be, Douglas looks as if his clothes are a size too small. As a result, he looks like he’s going to pop out of them any minute and occasionally he does to reveal his muscular upper torso. He also gives himself a few musical numbers which must be something he demands in his contract. He obviously fancies himself as a singer and enjoys it; otherwise why does he perform songs in so many of his other films that aren’t musicals like Along the Great Divide (1951), The Big Sky (1952), 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (he performs the mariner song,”A Whale of a Tale”), and Man Without a Star (1954). It’s not a terrible singing voice but unlikely to make you want to hear an album of “Kirk Douglas Sings Cole Porter” either.

The Last Sunset (1961) Directed by Robert Aldrich Shown from left: Carol Lynley, Kirk Douglas

As O’Malley, Douglas chooses to play his character as the sort of ambiguous villain who is capable of decency and devilish charm similar to Glenn Ford’s likable rogue of 3:10 to Yuma and Russell Crowe’s portrayal in the same role in the 2007 remake. In his scenes with Hudson he delivers venomous lines with a self-amused leer – “That sister of yours was just a free drink on the house and nobody went thirsty, I mean nobody.” Then he shows a gentler side to the Carol Lynley character as if he is doing a parody of his gentleman caller role in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1950). His scenes with Lynley grow increasingly creepy once he learns the truth about her birth and still encourages her romantic attraction to him. O’Malley is indeed a strange mess of contradictions – a violent man who is fixated on some romanticized vision of his younger days – and the final showdown between his man in black and Hudson’s Stribling anticipates the climax of A Gunfight (1970), in which Douglas faced off with Johnny Cash.

Jack Elam (left) and Neville Brand are often cast as villains in films and they play sinister drifters in the 1961 western, The Last Sunset, directed by Robert Aldrich.

There are other things in The Last Sunset that just don’t add up or go anywhere. When famous screen heavies Neville Brand and Jack Elam show up as drifters looking for some work, you know there is going to be trouble and probably fireworks. Yet, except for an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap Dorothy Malone during a dust storm, they barely register as dangerous threats and disappear from the film unceremoniously. Plus, in addition to Kirk Douglas occasionally breaking into song, there are many moments when Aldrich’s film threatens to turn into a full-blown musical such as the introduction of Dorothy Malone’s character as the camera tracks in on her while Mexican musicians play a popular folk song. You expect her to suddenly burst into song but the movie stops just short of that expectation by abruptly changing the focal point.

Kirk Douglas tries to make hay with Carol Lynley in The Last Sunset (1961), directed by Robert Aldrich.

Amid the hyperactive excess are plenty of arresting moments, however, thanks to Ernest Laszlo’s evocative compositions such as Hudson on his horse, stranded in quicksand and slowly sinking as Douglas watches impassively from the bank and then gallops away, only to return to do the right thing. It’s also fun to spot familiar faces in the veteran supporting cast such as Adam Williams (the serial killer protagonist of 1951’s Without Warning and one of the thugs threatening Cary Grant in North by Northwest), Regis Toomey (a young leading man in such Pre-Code dramas as Other Men’s Women and Shopworn) and Jose Torvay (Alfonso Bedoya’s predatory pal who helps kill Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

THE LAST SUNSET, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, 1961

All in all, The Last Sunset is a strange, constantly mood-shifting experience and, in terms of its operatic emotional tone, the movie is probably closer to a Douglas Sirk film in some regards. I would actually like to see what someone like Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have done with it. After all, he did his own take on the spaghetti western in 1980 with Whity starring Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla and Gunther Kaufmann in the title role. Not for all tastes perhaps but intriguing nonetheless.

In his memoirs Douglas didn’t place all the blame for his unhappy experience on The Last Sunset on Aldrich and Trumbo and Hudson – Universal was equally criticized. “The Last Sunset is another example of how a studio operates,” the producer/star wrote. “Universal insisted on controlling the production. The publicity department sent over pages and pages of suggestions for titles, most of them atrocious: The Magnificent Two, The Majestic Brutes….Seething Guns, The Fuel and the Fire, Thunderblast, Two to Make HateTrigger Talk, Death is My Middle Name, Appointment with a Dead SunAll Girls Wear Yellow DressesMy Gun, My Life!  Unfortunately, this was not the worst of my problems with the studio. I stuck strictly to their budget, finished the picture exactly on their schedule – and suddenly was informed that the picture was a million dollars over budget. To this day I don’t know why.”

The Last Sunset (1961) directed by Robert Aldrich shown: director Kirk Douglas, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, director Robert Aldrich

When the picture didn’t meet the studio’s expectations by becoming a big hit at the box office, it was no surprise. Unlike happy accidents like Casablanca and Tootsie – two movies that had their share of revolving writers and behind the scenes troubles – The Last Sunset wasn’t popular with critics or audiences. Typical of the reviews was this one from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who didn’t seem to notice anything weird or Freudian about the storyline and characters: “It is all exceedingly conventional. You’ll know you’ve been here before. Even the rock-studded scenery and the color look depressingly familiar and dull. The trouble simply is that Dalton Trumbo’s unoriginal script is utterly lacking distinction and Robert Aldrich’s direction is flat and slow. The actors all go through their assignments as if they were weary and bored. We don’t wonder. After only one hour’s exposure to them, we were quite weary and bored, too.”

Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone star in the 1961 psychological western The Last Sunset, directed by Robert Aldrich.

Boring is NOT the word I would use to describe The Last Sunset and since its release in 1961 it has been reassessed by many critics, many of them sympathetic like Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader who called it “an odd, contemplative western….Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay aspires to classical tragedy…yet Aldrich’s marvelously evocative use of the landscape keeps things relatively down to earth.” The TimeOut Film Guide review said “Aldrich’s film is in some senses an attempt to transpose to the Western genre the elements of Sirkian melodrama – same studio, similar casting, and a plot about sexual neurosis…The movie is more lyrical than Aldrich’s usual macho posturings, and Dalton Trumbo’s script is abrim with classical allusions.” The entry in The Encyclopedia of Western Movies states, “This powerful essay in sexual neurosis is, oddly enough, the most lyrical of Aldrich’s films. Douglas, whose philosophizing and blarney are matched by Laszlo’s sensuous images, is the man frozen in adolescence beneath whose romantic charms lies a pathological concern with an ideal rather than a real world.” And the TV Guide web site called it “an underrated gem.”

Joseph Cotten (center) has a major supporting role in The Last Sunset (1961), directed by Robert Aldrich.

Representative of the negative responses to The Last Sunset is this comment from Brian Garfield, author of Western Films: A Complete Guide, who classified the film as “heavy-breathing” and noted, “There are good scenes but Hudson is clumsy, Douglas self-consciously athletic (parodying himself), Malone overwrought, Lynley undercompetent and Cotten wasted in the background. It’s a curious grab bag of sentimental clichés and censor-baiting raciness; Trumbo’s script is talky; the pace is erratic.” Even the entry for The Last Sunset in Clive Hirschhorn’s The Universal Story dismisses it as “a pretty routine western whose only novelty was a touch of incest.”

Kirk Douglas and Dorothy Malone star in the 1961 western The Last Sunset, based on the novel Sundown at Crazy Horse by Howard Rigsby.

The Last Sunset has been featured in both Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas DVD collections but was not available as a single disc purchase until recent years. That changed in October 2015 when the Universal Vault Collection released it as a no frills solo DVD. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Blu-ray edition currently available in the U.S. but if you have an all-region Blu-ray player, you might find a PAL region 2 version available from Spain from various online distributors.

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