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Decision At Sundown

(Budd Boetticher, USA, 1957): There’s something wrong right from the beginning. Could that be Randolph Scott, our Randy, holding up a stagecoach? Well, not quite, as it turns out, but that twist on expectations sets the tone of off-kilter ambiguity that holds sway over the rest of this remarkable and complex little chamber western directed by the great Budd Boetticher. Scott plays Bart Allison, a revenge-fueled widower on his way to the town of Sundown to call out the kill the man (John Caroll) he blames for his wife’s suicide. Naturally, Allison and his sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) arrive in town on the very day that their prey — Tat Kimbrough, who holds the town in his vest pocket like a watch on a chain — is getting married. The better for Allison to disrupt the proceedings and proclaim his intentions, which very quickly results in the strangers being holed up in the livery stable while Kimbrough’s bought-and-paid-for lawmen wait with guns loaded. Meanwhile, the good citizens of Sundown continue to get plastered in the saloon on Kimbrough’s wedding day tab, only sobering up to responsibility when they see one of the trapped men shot in the back by their sheriff (Andrew Duggan). It’s time to take their honor back — a major Boetticher theme — a reckoning that paves the way for Allison’s own. He learns that his thirst for vengeance was based on a delusion, and that he’s been riding the rage pointlessly for years. This is bleak stuff thematically, but it flows perfectly from the wider undercurrent of blindly obsessed protagonists who proliferated during the fifties: Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, of course, but also James Stewart in most of the westerns he made with Anthony Mann and Paul Newman in The Left-Handed Gun. Again, the ex-bullfighter Boetticher packs a powerful amount of provocative material into a very tight corner: there’s the uncommonly cracked facade of the Scott persona, the tight geometrical precision of the town of Sundown — livery stable, saloon, church — and the parallel dramatic conflicts that keep the whole thing strung tighter than a wet saddle strap: Allison vs. Kimbrough, Kimbrough vs. the town,  the town versus its civic conscience, and Allison in solitary psychic combat with his own demons. In a decade which saw the genre’s wild frontier expand as vastly inward as it did westward, this pocket masterpiece cast quite a long shadow. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)