Saturday, April 17, 2010

Handling the truth

The premise that the protagonist possesses both knowledge and moral clarity is so deeply ingrained into the structure of narrative that every time it is challenged--and that is pretty often, especially in films of the 1960s and 70s--it can still be a shock. I still remember my astonishment, when I first saw Mozart's opera The Magic Flute and we got to the second act, when I realized ***SPOILER ALERT FOR AN 18TH CENTURY OPERA*** that all the good guys were actually bad guys, and vice versa, the "bad" guys were good and that the hero had been sent on a fool's errand.

So Decision at Sundown (1957), working that well-worn path, is still a surprise. Because Randolph Scott starts off the film wrong. He has a wrong goal, based on a wrong interpretation of the facts. This is Randolph Scott we're talking about. If Randolph Scott can be wrong, then food can kill you and the President can lie-- oh, wait a minute.

And in fact, the evil at the center of the story is far bigger than Randolph Scott's misplaced vengeance. Decision at Sundown is a "town" western, like My Darling Clementine and High Noon. Whereas most Westerns set a lone man against a vast landscape, "town" Westerns are about the arrival of civilization, and an examination of what we get from joining society in exchange for what we give up. And Sundown (it's the name of the town) is one of those "dirty little towns" in which one big baddie has sewn everything up including the law. What the people in town have given up is their integrity, their decency, their souls, for a little sense of security. (Should sound familiar for any American who was an adult in the spring of 2003.) Westerns are inherently suspicious of towns--the town in The Tall T is called Contention, and why? Because, as the station master says, "It's full of people, son."

The big boss, Tate Kimbrough (could people really be intimidated by a game named "Tate"?) is the guy Scott has come gunning for, albeit for the wrong reasons. Unusually for a Western, the film pivots around sex and sexual possession. Tate is going to get married today to a good girl, but he openly sleeps with the town floozy. (It's wonderful how much sex they could get into these low-budget programmer movies without anyone noticing.) Scott believes that Tate, who dallied with his wife when he was away fighting the Civil War, drove her to suicide. The truth, as Noah Beery, Jr. tries to tell him, is that Tate was one of many, that she was not a woman worth seeking vengeance for.

One even questions whether Randolph Scott is the central character. He spends most of the movie crouched in a livery stable, trying not to get shot by the corrupt sheriff. Although he does learn (or perhaps simply accept) the truth about his wife, he goes through no great character change, leaving the story as bitter and alienated as he entered it. You have not seen a Randolph Scott western until you've seen him at the end of the film, drunk, stinking, and spitting contempt on the townspeople who found their decency too late to save his friend.

This makes for an odd Western. It's not the usual man-against-the-landscape or man-against-evil force-set-against-the-landscape. One question why it needs to be a Western. But it needs to be an environment in which the rules are not yet set, where the only guidance as to the right way to behave come from the promptings of one's conscience. Choices are yet to be set in stone. One might be a sheriff or an outlaw--or switch back and forth, like Wyatt Earp. History and tradition have not set their heavy foot here, which is why Westerns as a form may have appealed to Europeans in days gone by.

This may be the only Western in which both hero and villain slink away in shame--because neither belongs in the about-to-be-civilized world of The Town.

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