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.
34 thoughts on “Red Sundown”
Good review Colin. By coincidence, I watched my newly-arrived Spanish DVD of Red Sundown just last night. Couldn’t believe it when I saw your review this morning.
As you say, James Millican gives a very effective performance. The philosophical little snippets he throws out about the futility of life as a hired gun are wonderful. Whilke making a gift of his ring to Calhoun just before he sets the scene for the escape, he says that it’s “all I’ve got left from being a big man!”. Then, there’s a wonderful moment when he realises that, for all his past glory days, he is now left “…without even the makings”. Great stuff. It hadn’t occurred to me that he looked ill though; although it does make sense. Probably, the fact that his character is dying of thirst when Longmire finds him and then, shortly afterwards, he’s gut shot, made me miss this!
This is one of the many 50s B westerns with a great title song. Now, you either love or hate these songs. I see many people dismissing them as ‘cheesy’…but I’ve always had a great affection for them. Terry Gilkyson’s title song here is a perfect little number. Interestingly, Gilkyson recorded another version of the song for an Easy Riders record at the time, where he changes the lyrics to make ‘Caroline’ (Martha Hyer’s character in the film) a faithless girlfriend rather than the idealised girl who is asked to “put on your wedding gown” in the film version.
Before obtaining this very good widescreen DVD, I have had Red Sundown on VHS for many years and I have watched it often. I never get tired of it. It’s not perfect but it captures the spirit of the 50s western and your review does it full justice.
Finally…as to Calhoun’s alleged 79 infidelities, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that he contested this by saying it was only 77! 🙂 It’s surprising that he managed to fit in some decent westerns between the… ‘encounters’!
Hi Dafydd, quite a coincidence that you just watched this one yourself. That Spanish DVD is pretty good quality, and it’s nice to have the movie looking well.
I like the theme song just fine; I guess some of these can be considered a bit cheesy but, for the most part, I’ve found that they work well enough.
And whatever the truth of the numbers involved, it would certainly appear that Calhoun was a busy man on all fronts.
Another Great review man.
Yeah, Rory Calhoun certainly did have a natural way with this genre. He could be quite good at the rare villain role, too. Always liked the name ‘Longmire’ in a western. Author Craig Johnson uses it for his protagonist (his Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire being a favorite mystery series set in the modern west). Thanks, Colin.
Michael, I haven’t seen the TV show (although I have been made aware of it before) and I’m curious if the books are worth tracking down.
The books are excellent, Colin. CJ captures the west, then and now, and all through the glass of the crime/mystery genre.
Thanks for that Michael – sounds right up my street! I’ll have to check them out.
Great review Colin – this is one of the few Jack Arnold films I’ve never seen so really great to know there is a decent DVD of it to be found. I actually haven’t seen many movies with Rory Calhoun but this looks a decent place to start! However, what would be your idea of Calhoun’s best performance?
Calhoun had a small but important role in Daves’ The Red House and I think he acquitted himself very well.
Having said that, I reckon he was at his best in westerns. River of No Return, Dawn at Socorro, Way of a Gaucho and Powder River all get my recommendation.
Thanks for that – I will get that Blu-ray of THE RED HOUSE your recommended and I’d forgotten he was in RIVER OF NO RETURN (let’s just say he had some big competition in that one). But it’s been decades since I saw the Tourneur and the other is completely new to me, so I’ll see about tracking down POWDER RIVER as well – looks like these are also available in Spanish edition. Thanks very much.
Way of a Gaucho is an excellent film, though I found the Spanish DVD a little soft. Powder River looks great, colourful and fun.
Dawn at Socorro is a lovely little sleeper – unavailable on DVD as far as I know, more’s the pity.
I might also have mentioned A Bullet is Waiting, not exactly a western anyway, but the DVD I have looks like it’s the wrong AR. Apache Territory, from a Louis L’Amour novel (Last Stand at Papago Wells) isn’t bad but it’s fairly minor.
I was literally just on the site being tempted by the John Farrow (as I’m a fan of his) – how badly is the AR screwed up (panned I can’t handled, or unmatted I can live with – or something horrible in between?)
I haven’t the disc to hand to run off a few screencaps unfortunately. However, it looked to me like open-matte.
You can see some captures taken from the US MOD release here: http://www.mundodvd.com/capturas_dvd-bala-el-camino-a-bullet-is-waiting-1954-de-john-farrow-91423/
The Spanish disc looked broadly similar to me.
Thanks Colin – AR notwithstanding those grabs look pretty good to me!
Yes, it’s a handsome looking film and the Spanish transfer, to give it its due, is very colourful and clean.
The only brief segment of Dawn At Socorro on DVD is the one which is used to depict Alec Longmire’s flashback to a life of violence in Red Sundown. Somewhat similar to the scenes from John Wayne’s westerns at the beginning of The Shootist. I sincerely hope that the whole film turns up on DVD at some point. It is indeed another fine B western.
Another Calhoun western that’s pretty good is The Saga Of Hemp Brown. But, overall, I’m afraid that many of his westerns are quite rare. One would expect something like Utah Blaine, for example, to be more well-known, if only for the reason that it’s another one based on a L’Amour novel. I don’t recall that I’ve ever seen it.
Quite right Dafydd, and thanks for chipping in with that. Let’s hope Dawn at Socorro does turn up sooner or later.
I’ve never seen Utah Blaine either, mind you I have the novel and haven’t read it yet! The film should be a Sony property I guess, so it may show up eventually.
Since it hasn’t been mentioned, I’ll say FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER is for me Rory Calhoun’s best–stunning, unexpected love scene between Calhoun and Colleen Miller, very elaborate and beautifully directed by Richard Carlson is what most lifts it but it holds up as a great movie overall.
Then WAY OF A GAUCHO a close second, and next just about a tossup, DAWN AT SOCORRO and RED SUNDOWN.
I’m refraining from RED SUNDOWN comments for now though, because I have it recorded to watch and was planning to watch it soon so will try to do it before the thread is over. If I can’t get to it I’ll quickly make a few comments anyway.
Guess I will say that James Millican had cancer and probably knew he was near the end, and I always had the sense that he took this role because it resonated against his own mortality and was also perhaps the best role he was ever given, so a good one to go out on. For me it is his best role; he’s absolutely superb, and the movie’s standout–the opening haunts the rest
Blake, I’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you get round watching your recording of the movie.
I didn’t mention Four Guns to the Border for the simple reason that I’ve never seen it – another to add to the wish list.
I think you’re probably right regarding Millican – it’s a wonderful little part, full of pathos and regret. I’ve no doubt he saw it as a fine way to bow out.
Hi Colin, Signed up twice and am still not receiving your blog. Found you from Kristina at Speakeasy. Don’t see Hatari listed in your Index. Any reason for not reviewing it? I have chosen it for Group Watch on JWMB, and wanted to get your thoughts on it. It has a great many themes to discuss and the Watch is a month long. So, although I would rather have chosen a Western with Duke and Ward, (my favorite and how I found Kristina….will be writing an article on Wagon Master for her shortly), I was asked to choose one this month, and it is Non-western month, Darn!
Love your stuff when I remember to go look for it. Hope I start getting it now. Keith, ( the old lady one, LOL).
Hello Keith. You’re certainly listed as one of the blog subscribers now so I guess you should be getting email alerts whenever I have any new content posted.
As for Hatari, the only reason I have nothing on it is the fact I haven’t watched the movie for ages. I may do something on it in the future though. I think of it as one of those late period Hawks efforts that has a very relaxed and easygoing feel to it. It plays out like a kind of light western in an African setting and leaves you with the impression that everyone involved was having a good time.
Thematically, it’s fairly typical Hawks and follows the template of stuff like Only Angels Have Wings: close-knit group of professionals, strong emphasis on camaraderie and bonding, one tough down-to-earth broad and another who has to earn the acceptance of the core group etc.
I love this film. It seems to offer up all the things that make a Universal 50s Western such a treat. The Calhoun pictures are ripe for rediscovery — they’re far better than their reputation.
Your post, as usual, did it justice, and made me want to see it again.
The burning-house/stovepipe sequence is amazing. It’s in the source novel, by the way. It’s a shame that these “minor” films are so hard to research these days. I’d love to know everything about this one.
Hi there Toby. There’s a lot to be said for these snappy, pacy Universal westerns. I think that, as more of them gradually trickle out on DVD, and people have a chance to reevaluate them, the better efforts will get some of their due.
Your point about the novel highlights something important too; a lot of these movies had a solid base to build on, namely a literary source with good ideas already present.
BTW, I really enjoyed your piece on The Hanging Tree – nicely done.
RED SUNDOWN is based on 2 novels by Lewis B.Patten – GUN PROUD and BACK TRAIL – I think he wrote one first then re-wrote a slightly expanded version. An excellent Movie but to me it seemed cut short as the Henshaw (Robert Middleton) threat is left hanging !
“Four guns To The Border” is based on the Louis L’Amour novel “High Lonesome” and is pretty good although I felt the ending could have been stronger and “Utah Blaine” again based on L’Amour’s novel is full of action, I always wonder if Calhoun himself designed that fancy 2 gun rig he used in “Utah Blaine” and “Red Sundown”
“Powder River” was inspired by Stuart Lake’s “Wyatt Earp book and features a great performance by Cameron Mitchell as the “Doc” Holliday character while Calhoun is very good as the Earp one.
Calhoun wrote the book “Man From Padura” which was the basis for his interesting “Domino Kid”
again worth seeing. A DVD release of Rory Calhoun’s westerns is way overdue.
Bruce, you’re right in a way – the threat posed by Middleton’s character hasn’t really gone away, just contained for the time being. I guess the implication is that once his enforcer has been taken out of the picture the threat is effectively neutralized.
Actually, I wasn’t aware that Four Guns to the Border was based on L’Amour’s High Lonesome. I have that book and remember enjoying it so I’m now even more curious about the movie.
On the subject of Louis L’Amour, I think his stuff was well suited to 50s programmers; they tend to have that punchy quality, generally backed up by pretty solid plots, that could be worked into 80 minute westerns.
As always,very well writeup and analysis. I am a fan of Rory Calhoun, particularly westerns and in the same league as Audie Murphy and George Montgomery. Best regards.
Thanks Chris. I think Calhoun’s star might continue to burn a little brighter if more of his movies were more widely available. Audie Murphy wasn’t that well represented on DVD a few years ago, but a good deal more of his work has trickled out – something similar may happen with Calhoun.
Hi there — thought I’d revisit this post to mention for anyone in the U.S., RED SUNDOWN is coming up on cable’s Encore Westerns Channel on October 28th. My DVR is set!
Ah, you’ll be in for a treat. Hope you enjoy.
Well said! This one is a top flight duster with fine work from the entire cast and crew. I first saw this on the old b/w tv back with my father and it always stuck in my mind. Then I caught it 10years or so back when someone sent me a copy recorded off cable. This is one of Calhoun’s best films in my humble opinion. I think i’ll dig it out for a rewatch. Again, nice write-up!
Great work from Calhoun and all concerned in the film. I think it makes for a fine example of the unsung 50s western.
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