The Last Sunset is a 1961 Western filled with unforeseen complications, which seems appropriate given its genesis. Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson supposedly had signed on to act opposite one another in an adaptation of Day of the Gun before writer Dalton Trumbo entered the fray and adapted Sundown at Crazy Horse instead. Douglas brought in Robert Aldrich (Vera Cruz, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Longest Yard) to direct, but the two found themselves at odds over differing levels of passion for the project. It shows in the final product. There’s nothing especially thrilling about the direction, and, for the most part, the film is staged in a very standard American style. There’s good cinematography for the establishing scenes, barely disguised stage dress for the rest of it. Besides Douglas (as the villain), Hudson (as the hero) and Dorothy Malone (as the woman between them), most of The Last Sunset is pretty standard Western fare. Until the final 15 minutes. Until the twist.
Douglas stars as O’Malley, a murderer on the run from Stribling (Hudson), a lawman with a big-bucks warrant for O’Malley’s arrest and the kind of personal vendetta that makes hunting such dangerous prey feel like destiny. Stribling’s jurisdiction ends at the southern border of Texas, but he pursues O’Malley into Mexico anyway. The two finally meet at the Breckenridge farm, run by Belle (Malone), her drunk ex-Confederate husband, John (Joseph Cotton), and their 16-year-old daughter, Missy (Carol Lynley). O’Malley came to the farm seeking Belle, with whom he shared one passionate night over a decade-and-a-half prior. He’s always remembered her that night, an angelic virgin in a yellow dress. O’Malley wants Belle to ride away with him, to make true the dreams that guided him through his rough and violent life. She’s not so sure. For one, she and her family are about to do a cattle drive northward into Mexico. The only way she agrees to let O’Malley stick around is if he helps them as a hired hand.
Naturally, he agrees to do so — and so Stribling does, too. Once they hit Texas, the two will have their showdown. Until then, they make do as partners, and perhaps, friends.
The majority of the film is buoyed by the natural chemistry between the two of them and Trumbo’s prose, which services well Douglas’s deliciously nasty O’Malley. He’s irresistible, charming and a complete narcissist. Belle’s other hired hands love him, and those that don’t have to find their own pathway. Hudson’s hero is equally likable with a lot less to work with, a feat in and of itself.
Still, it’s a pretty standard affair until the finale when the budding love stories between Stribling & Belle and O’Malley & Missy get thrown into shocking disarray. It all comes crashing down quietly, with weight and sadness. Only one gunshot rings out between the two in the end, but the preceding revelations are so much more shattering. It’s genuinely surprising, and Douglas acts the absolute hell out of it.
The new release from Kino Lorber features a theatrical trailer, a brand new 2K remaster (which looks pretty great) and an informative audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton.