Red Sundown (1956)    3 Stars


Red Sundown (1956)

Director: Jack Arnold

Cast: Rory Calhoun, Martha Hyer, Dean Jagger

Synopsis: When his life is saved in a shootout by a fellow gunman whose life he in turn had saved, Alex Longmire promises to give up his way of life.




Given the amount of B-Westerns Universal churned out in the 1950s, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Jack Arnold’s Red Sundown has been overlooked. Arnold was the man who directed the following years’ The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Red Sundown features the big screen debut of Grant Williams, the title character of that movie, who makes a terrific villain. The movie itself, although burdened by a fairly routine plot, is slickly directed by Arnold, elevated above its modest status by Martin Berkeley’s script, which is filled with smart dialogue and interesting characters, and enhanced by a solid cast.

Rory Calhoun (River of No Return, Apache Territory) plays Alec Longmire, a gunslinger who, with ageing fellow gunslinger Bud Purvis (James Millican — Al Jennings of Oklahoma, High Noon), falls foul of some drunken layabouts who have them pinned down in an abandoned shack. After Purvis takes a gunshot wound to the gut and draws from Longmire a promise that he’ll mend his ways if he ever gets out of their predicament, he buries Longmire alive in a shallow grave inside the shack, using an old stove pipe as an improvised air vent through which he can breathe when their assailants burn down the shack and kill Purvis. After Purvis’s killers have departed, believing Longmire to have escaped, our hero is literally reborn, rising from the earth, as a reformed character.

Most movies would have Longmire going after the men who killed his mate, but Red Sundown isn’t a revenge movie and, in fact, we never see those men again. Instead, he journeys to the Texan town of Durango, where his frankness and honesty wins the friendship of Jade Murphy (Dean Jagger — Revolt of the Zombies, The Kremlin Letter), the town’s sheriff and an invitation to supper that evening. Of course, Murphy has a comely daughter, Caroline (Martha Hyer — The Sons of Katie Elder) with a bust as taut as twin zeppelins who provides the obligatory, and largely perfunctory, love interest. Longmire agrees to become Murphy’s deputy to help the older man handle a war brewing between homesteaders and local cattle baron Rufus Henshaw (The Law and Jake Wade), but when Longmire proves capable of handling Henshaw’s paid guns in a way that Murphy isn’t, the cattle baron hires the services of quick-fire gunslinger, Chet Swann (Grant Williams — The Incredible Shrinking Man, PT109)…

Given his abilities as a director, Jack Arnold’s career never really followed the path it should have. He was capable of much more than he actually achieved. With Red Sundown he delivered a polished movie that rises above its B-movie origins to create a cast of compelling characters, many of whom defy genre conventions. He’s aided by capable performances from old hands like Rory Calhoun and Dean Jagger and a youngish Robert Middleton who would become familiar to Western fans thanks to effectively playing the same role in countless movies and TV shows. It’s Grant Williams who makes the biggest impact, though, as the snakelike, perpetually-smiling psychotic gunslinger Chet Swann. On the strength of this debut it would have been reasonable to expect Williams to have an auspicious movie career ahead of him, but, like Arnold’s, his career never really took off the way it should have.

(Reviewed 9th May 2014)