Monday, January 16, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Sundowners" (1960)

"The Sundowners" was a financial flop in the U.S. but made bank in other parts of the world, especially Australia, where it was set and shot. Despite its lack of domestic box office, the film received critical acclaim and an impressive slate of Oscar nominations: best picture, director, screenplay, actress and supporting actress, winning none.

Like a lot of quality of pictures of that era, its reputation has unfortunately waned with the passing of years, to the point it straddles into the "forgotten films" category.

Robert Mitchum was a last-minute replace for an ailing Gary Cooper, reteaming with his "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" co-star, Deborah Kerr, even offering her top billing. They play a husband-and-wife team of sheep drovers wandering the early 20th century outback. The title from the 1952 novel by Jon Clearly refers to people who willingly wander without a home: they pitch their tent wherever the sun goes down.

(I should mention this movie bears no relation to a 1950 one with the same title, a cattle-rustling Western starring Robert Preston.)

Both Kerr and Mitchum employ workable Aussie accents, though Mitchum's has a tinge of the Irish, befitting his portrayal of fiercely independent Paddy Carmody. It's a little unclear if Paddy actually emigrated from Ireland; based on the accent I'd guess he's a first-generation natural born son. He still has a fondness for drinking, fighting, gambling and singing, which apparently every Irish in the history of cinema does.

I've noted before that Mitchum's characters almost always have an aspect of danger about them, but Paddy's no threat to anyone. His tragic flaw is his wanderlust, which compels him to always stay on the plains, driving sheep from here to there, taking seasonal jobs as a shearer or what have you when the cash in the family jelly jar starts to run low again.

After nigh on 20 years of this, though, the life has taken its toll on his wife, Ida. As she often did, Kerr plays a strong-headed, smart redhead who knows just how to deal with rough, gruff men while letting them operate under the delusion they're in charge. Though Paddy is a little less blinkered, occasionally referring to Ida as "boss" in front of other men.

Ida desperately wants to buy a farm and settle down. She's a woman of simple tastes: she desires a big kitchen with a real stove, something solid over their heads and a bit of security for their future. Though there's one terrific wordless scene where Ida is standing next to their wagon, windblown and sunburnt, and gazes enviously upon a woman in fine clothes sitting in a train powdering her nose. Their eyes lock for just a second.

But she's mostly thinking of their son, Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.), who is 15 going on... maybe 13. He's a quiet, respectful lad but is clearly being held back by his pop, who won't even let him ride drover with him, despite having the size and skills. Ida wants him to go to school, learn a trade, meet some girls, and otherwise scoot on down the road toward manhood.

As the story opens Paddy has accepted a commission to drove a large herd of sheep to Cawndilla. Because they only have one old horse they need to pull the wagon, they have to take on another drover with a couple of mounts for himself and Paddy. Conveniently they run into Rupert Venneker, a refined British gentleman played by the great Peter Ustinov. He offers to come along, mostly to escape the clutches of the woman he works for, who clearly would like to convert him from employee to husband.

Rupert is a benevolent but intemperate soul with an air of mystery he enjoys cultivating. Rumor has it he was once a nobleman with lands and a title, disgraced and exiled after some mishap. He himself cops to having once been a cavalryman in Her Majesty's army and an officer of a merchant vessel in the Far East. He's not that old, but seems to have soaked up several lifetimes' worth of world-weariness during his treks. Like Paddy, he prefers to be on the move.

Paddy and Rupert exchange a few tongue-lashings that are understandable given their difference in breeding, but despite appearances the latter is a competent horseman and they make it to Cawndilla, escaping a fast-moving forest fire in the process. They're prepared to part ways, but Ida convinces the men for them all to take jobs working the sheep-shearing season at a big local farm operation.

Rupert later refers to himself as the Carmody's pet, a dyspeptic creature with "a hard shell and a soft underbelly." He even falls in with the local pub owner, a lively widow named Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns). Rupert repeatedly talks about how he knows one day he's going to break her heart when it's inevitably time to leave again. Until then, they enjoy lively nights together, with Rupert creeping back to the farm around dawn.

But when that fated day does arrive, it's Firth talking c'est la vie while Rupert owns the hangdog pout.

Much of the second half of the movie has to do with money. Ida carefully counts their growing savings, quietly maneuvering to put a down payment on a lovely farm they passed at the beginning of their journey. Paddy mostly plays along, as long as he can go into town with the boys every now and then to drink, sing old Irish ditties and lose a little money at "two-up," a popular coin-flipping game. He doesn't know about the farm plan, but he's cagey enough to figure out she's up to something.

Paddy gets roped into a shearing contest against another farm crew, and finds himself put up against a doddering 80-something fellow. But the movie goes sideways from expectations, as the strapping Paddy is laid low by the tireless oldster. Still, no one blames him for the loss and life goes on. In some ways this sequence best encapsulates the film's theme, which is that luck changes but relationships endure.

At one point Paddy has a massive winning streak at two-up, and not only do they have enough cash for the farm he also wins a thoroughbred racing horse. Soon Sean is recruited as jockey and they're winning races and more dough. But something's got to give, and it does.

Gorgeously directed by Fred Zinnemann with wonderful cinematography by Jack Hildyard, "The Sundowners" is part travelogue exposing the Australian outback, part adventure story and part family dramaturgy. Isobel Lennart provided the screenplay adaptation, and it's probably her best-remembered work apart from "Funny Girl." (For which, oddly, she did not receive an Oscar nod.)

It's an old-fashioned story with some modestly modernistic aspects, such as a fairly frank attitude toward sex for 1960. Kerr disrobes for a nighttime scene with her figure starkly outlined behind a backlit negligee, as Paddy talks admiringly of her curves. And it would be hard to suppose exactly what else Rupert would be up to during his nightly sojourns into Cawndilla.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, with the Carmodys losing their entire stake but cementing their love for each other, with Rupert as the add-on uncle/mate/sheepdog. Some things can't be counted, only embraced.

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