Review: Red Sundown (1956)

Caroline don't leave me, keep wearing your wedding gown
Caroline believe me and look to the red sundown

With a haunting melody and lyrics that speak of love and murder, thus begins Red Sundown. The opening song--written and performed by a warbling Terry Gilkyson of the folk group The Easy Riders--doesn't actually have all that much to do with the plot of the film, but it sure does set the mood. Rory Calhoun is Alec Longmire, a gunslinger who promises a dying pistolero that he'll go legit if he manages to outrun a group of murderous thugs. True to his word, Longmire finds himself in a good town with an upright sheriff (Dean Jagger) who desperately needs a deputy to help him stop a land war that has escalated into violence in the streets. Seeing his opportunity at redemption while also seeing the charms of the sheriff's feisty daughter (Martha Hyer), Longmire pins a tin star to his shirt and sets about the business of upholding the law. 

This solid western comes from Universal-International and moves very quickly thanks to a screenplay from Martin Berkeley, based on the novel Back Trail by Lewis B. Patten. Genre fans know Berkeley for his screenplays on monster classics Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis. No coincidence that two of those creature features were directed by Jack Arnold, who helms Red Sundown. It's interesting to me how a workaday director like Jack Arnold can become an industry hero just by being easy to work with, hitting his deadlines, and making movies and television shows that resonate with everyone. Both Brady boys Christopher Knight and Barry Williams name his as their favorite episodic director on The Brady Bunch, and Arnold enjoyed a prolific career in both film and television. Between Tarantula in 1955 and The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957, Jack Arnold made just two feature films: one of them is a cracking film noir called Outside the Law and the other is Red Sundown.

Two of the Jack Arnold pictures I've just mentioned--Outside the Law and The Incredible Shrinking Man--starred Grant Williams, but the actor makes his feature film debut right here in Red Sundown as Chet Swann, one of the biggest creeps ever to grace the screen. Much like Burt Lancaster's character in 1954's Vera Cruz, Chet Swann gets off on being a bad guy and carries out horrible acts of cruelty with a joyful smile. It's quite a debut for Williams, who clearly made an impression on his director. Character actor fans can expect to see lots of familiar faces in the cast: Leo Gordon, James Millican (who died of cancer at the age of 45 shortly before the film was released), Lita Barton--Calhoun's actual wife at the time, and even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it uncredited appearance by Lee Van Cleef in a brief flashback sequence lifted from another Rory Calhoun movie, Dawn at Soccoro (1954). 

Red Sundown makes what appears to be an official and authorized DVD debut courtesy of Australia's Umbrella Entertainment. The anamorphic transfer is clearly not new and likely dates back to the dawn of the DVD era. However, while not reference quality, the film is in its correct aspect ratio and is very watchable. To this viewer, it felt like watching a good print at a repertory screening. There are no special features, but at the current price of $15 USD (and another 15% off with coupon code CEREAL15) it's hard to complain. As is often the case, I hope to see these mid-century westerns restored in HD for Blu-ray in the near future, but considering how long many of these films have languished in the vaults of their parent studios, I'm more than happy to have this DVD in my collection. 

With a major focus on redemption and laying down one's guns for good, Red Sundown is a different kind of western than many might expect. The film relies on drama and character development instead of action; when violence does break out, it gets downplayed and sometimes even shown at a distance so as not to glamorize it. At times, it even feels like a TV production (a field that Jack Arnold would soon know well); truly, the line between Alec Longmire in this film and Bill Longley, Calhoun's character on TV's The Texan, is a thin one. Calhoun must have known this, since screenwriter Martin Berkeley would go on to pen five scripts for the Rorvic Productions/Desilu series two years later. Nevertheless, Red Sundown is an enjoyable, character-focused tale brought to life by great performances from Rory Calhoun, Dean Jagger, and Grant Williams. Recommended. 


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