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Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Film Buff: Into the Sunset

Blake Edwards 1922-2010
I decided to remember Blake Edwards today by sharing one of my favorite lesser-known films in the great director's career: Sunset. Based on an idea by Rod Amateau, Edwards wrote and directed this adroit murder mystery set in the days of early Hollywood. At the core of this fictional story are two true-Hollywood facts:

Fact 1: Famed Western lawman Wyatt Earp worked in early Hollywood as a technical advisor on Western films including some starring Tom Mix.
Fact 2: Mix and Earp became good friends.

The real Wyatt Earp
The real Tom Mix
Bruce Willis was riding high on his popularity from the ABC television series Moonlighting, but had not yet broken out as the mega-action star he would become. (Die Hard was released a few months after this film.) He had the perfect mix of charisma, wit, leading man good looks, and action-hero brawn to play the larger-than-life Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix in 1929. Technically, in 1929, Wyatt Earp would have been 80, but - with a bit of artistic license - Edwards cast James Garner, his leading man from Victor/Victoria (1982),  to play the aging lawman Wyatt Earp. (Garner was 60 at the time.) Throw in a sinister murder mystery, and you've got the makings of a pretty darn good buddy action film.

SUNSET: Movie Trailer. Watch more top selected videos about: Movie Trailers, James Garner

Unfortunately, the film did not do well at the box office, and it was disliked by critics. Roger Ebert said it felt like the plot was borrowed from a Raymond Chandler novel. There are elements of Farewell, My Lovely, sure, but I do think it stands on its own, and I like the seedy, hard-boiled aspect of the film. Ebert also felt that Willis should have played Mix a little less down-to-earth, but I kind of like that Mix and Earp are two men whose legends precede them a bit more than they'd like. (The catch-phrase of this film is "That's the truth - give or take a lie or two.") I really think this film's failure among critics and audiences comes down to a matter of timing - not comic timing, Garner and Willis are spot on, in my opinion.
In April of 1988, The Rockford Files was eight years off the air, and, with the exception of a couple of action films (I recommend The Glitter Dome), James Garner was known most recently to audiences for his romantic comedies (I recommend Murphy's Romance) and his witty Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley. Die Hard hadn't been released yet, so Bruce Willis was primarily known for playing over-the-top wise-cracking David Addison on Moonlighting. Add to that Blake Edward's renown for slapstick comedies, and you've got a whole lot of people looking for a laugh-fest. There's humor, for sure, but this is more of an action-comedy, and the bad guys (no spoilers) are very bad guys.
I think this film deserves a second chance. It's a different kind of a movie from one of the great directors of the late twentieth century.

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