Low budget westerns seem to occupy a place on the filmography of just about every Hollywood star at one time or another. For some actors, the relationship with the genre was little more than a flirtation, something they dipped in and out of without leaving any real or lasting impression. On the other hand, there were others who discovered their niche in such movies. Rory Calhoun belongs in that category; sure he made other types of movie, but it’s with the western, and the programmers in particular, that his name tends to be most often associated. Red Sundown (1956), directed by Jack Arnold, offered him a pretty good role in a standard tale of a man trying to reform and make a fresh start.
Alec Longmire (Calhoun) is a man with a violent past, a drifter with no particular plans. However, his aimless existence is about to take a sharp turn, precipitated by his stumbling upon a lone figure in the wilderness. Bud Purvis (James Millican) is another wandering gunslinger, running from the law and on his last legs. He’s already walked the same path Longmire is currently taking, and all he has to show for it is regret. An altercation with a group of roughnecks in the saloon of some nameless backwater leads to the two men riding out of town in a hurry, with company not far behind. By nightfall they’re under siege in an abandoned shack with no way out. Gutshot and dying, with their shelter already on fire, Purvis comes up with a unique plan that will allow one of them to escape. But he has one condition; the doomed gunman has the younger man give his word that he’ll hang up his weapons if he should make it out alive. Well, Longmire’s not the kind to break a promise, least of all one given to a dying man, and so determines to leave his past behind him. However, reputations have a way of catching up with people and, besides that, wiping the slate clean generally demands more than a sense of remorse and good intentions. And so Longmire, somewhat reluctantly, finds himself sworn in as deputy to Sheriff Murphy (Dean Jagger) in the town of Durango. Murphy’s not getting any younger, and badly needs some backup as he’s caught right slap in the middle of an escalating range war. On one side is big time rancher Henshaw (Robert Middleton), while on the other is a collection of squatters and homesteaders. The greatest threat posed to Longmire and Murphy is the arrival on the scene of Chet Swann (Grant Williams), a reckless killer hired by Henshaw. Longmire has to tread a fine line, maintaining the objectivity of the law while an unwanted showdown with the dangerous Swann looms ever closer.
Red Sundown was Jack Arnold’s second western and showed a lot of promise. That’s not to say it’s above criticism though. Restricted budgets generally meant short running times and pacy storytelling, and that’s more or less the case with this movie. I say more or less because the film fairly springs out of the gate and grabs the attention, tends to coast along in the middle, and then puts in a strong sprint finish. The opening benefits from a bit of added exterior shooting and a great turn from James Millican – this was to be his last film and he looks quite ill at times. The siege of the abandoned hut where he and Calhoun hole up looks good, has a sense of real tension, and a pay off that’s sad and uplifting at the same time. The slightly problematic mid-section, in contrast, suffers from too much interior work and a romantic angle with Martha Hyer that never sparks or truly convinces. In short, this passage has too much talk, not enough action and relatively flat visuals. Having said all that, the character of Swann is introduced in a way that highlights his creepy ruthlessness, and his presence does create a bit of much needed tension. The ending, while a touch abrupt, sees the pace pick up for the climactic duel and allows for a little more inventiveness as far as the camerawork is concerned.
Rory Calhoun gives what I’d term a comfortable, easy performance as the former bad man trying to cut his ties with a violent past and turn over a new leaf. This is far from an unfamiliar theme within westerns, and I think it’s fair to say that Calhoun doesn’t bring anything new or startling to the table. However, he’s never less than believable in the role and has enough natural charm to carry the lead. I think there’s a bit of a misconception that playing a tough western character doesn’t require a lot of effort. The thing is, pushing the boat out too far means you end up with a caricature, while reining it in too much results in a limp character lacking in credibility. Personally, I feel Calhoun strikes the right balance; the whole look, posture and attitude he adopts never leaves the viewer in any doubt that he’s capable of handling himself in a tight situation, yet he never tips over into comic book antics. In contrast, Grant Williams, as the hired killer Swann, doesn’t quite hit the mark. His first appearance, all smiles and mock geniality, really taps into a sinister, chilling quality that bodes well. However, he fails to maintain this, and the scene where he confronts Calhoun in his room doesn’t work at all. It’s something almost indefinable, but the way Williams delivers his lines is all wrong – there’s no threat behind them, none of the menace that’s desperately needed. I already referred to the unsatisfactory romance between Calhoun’s character and Martha Hyer’s, but I’ll bring it up here again simply because it highlights what I feel was a missed opportunity. There was the possibility of adding an intriguing triangle to the mix with the introduction of Lita Baron as Henshaw’s housekeeper, and Calhoun’s old flame, but it’s never truly exploited. The actress was married to Calhoun at the time and there is a chemistry at work whenever the pair share the screen. When you consider the fact that Lita Baron eventually sued for divorce and cited her husband’s having committed adultery with seventy-nine different women (yes, that’s right 79) as the grounds, it’s clear this must have been a turbulent relationship. If there are some weaknesses in a few of the performances, it’s just about balanced out by solid playing from two old pros, Dean Jagger and Robert Middleton – the latter even gets to slug it out in a fine saloon punch-up with Calhoun.
Red Sundown has always been one of the more difficult Jack Arnold westerns to get hold of, previously only being available in a pricey box set from Koch in Germany (more so if, like myself, you already had the other titles) or a French release afflicted with the dreaded forced subtitles. However, Llamentol in Spain have recently put out a nice-looking edition on DVD that’s competitively priced. The film is presented in the correct 2:1 ratio and is anamorphic. The image is generally pleasing, with strong colour and a clean print. As usual, there’s no problem with subtitles – they can be disabled via the setup menu. The disc boasts no extra features, but I’m just glad to have a decent looking copy for a reasonable price. The movie is a solid programmer, and never aspires to anything loftier. I won’t claim the film is some lost classic or anything, but what I will say is that it does provide 80 minutes of attractive entertainment.