The Happy Trail Not Taken: Sunset at 35

In the opening minutes of Blake Edwards’s Sunset, a dying-breed studio mogul offers silent superstar and action hero primordial Tom Mix his next project, a bet-the-studio biopic of Wyatt Earp. “I didn’t become numero uno at the box office by playing other people,” says Bruce Willis. Oh, he’s playing Mix, make no mistake; he wears the ten-gallon hat like a sign around his neck. But there’s no mistaking who’s talking and, more often, smirking. Upon release in April 1988, there was no mistaking him.

Not that Edwards wanted Bruce Willis. Not that he even wanted him for 1987’s Blind Date, his bigger-screen debut as a leading man after two years in the Moonlighting mines. On that one, Sean Penn bailed. For this, Robert Duvall was too expensive. And although a case could be made for the former’s interchangeability, Bruce Willis was no Robert Duvall.

Instead of countering his image in the Edwardian fashion like he did the first time around – see also: alcoholic Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine & Roses, topless Julie Andrews in S.O.B. – the director told his repeat star to lean into it. Forget Tom Mix; play Bruce Willis.  

But this isn’t a Bruce Willis movie, even if “Hudson Hawk Films Ltd.” does beat all other credits to the screen. Sunset belongs to James Garner, another TV boy made good, who isn’t just playing someone else, but repeating himself, and well. This is the second time Garner’s Wyatt Earp has survived the O.K. Corral, but unlike in 1967’s Hour of the Gun, it’s only an intrusive thought. Tempting to call it PTSD, but the lawman’s face is too calcified to tell. As he watches Mix recreate it the way it should’ve happened, with polished bullets and acrobatic deaths, Earp remembers the way it actually did, nine men standing in the street and shooting until three of them weren’t.

When the fake lawman asks if Hollywood got it right, the real one delivers the film’s catchphrase – “Absolutely… give or take a lie or two.” Sunset is full of grim endings smiled through in close-up. Not one but two significant deaths happen off-screen. As would remain Hollywood policy for most of the century ahead, the sadistic, possibly incestuous proclivities of evil Chaplin analogue Alfie Alperin are an open secret but only alleged, even by the camera. The very notion of a blockbuster silent film to win back American audiences in 1929, two years after The Jazz Singer, is an overcranked trainwreck that presumably derails shortly after the end credits. 

Even the advertising got in on the gritted teeth. Despite presenting Sunset as a buddy comedy, it’s neither. In a rare and somehow still misguided moment of historical veracity, Mix and Earp are such fast friends they never so much as frown at each other, nixing any possible fireworks. As for the other half, this is Blake Edwards’s Chinatown and about as funny – the dubious mother-daughter relationship here is a winking Victor/Victoria reference.

Sunset’s aimless saunter through half a dozen genres confounded audiences and critics alike. It didn’t recoup half of its modest $16 million dollar budget, $2 million less than that summer’s Big. Vincent Canby couldn’t even call it a movie, just a series of events “without characters, without anything, not even a point of view.” 

What ties Sunset together, however loosely, is right there on the tin. It’s late in the day, the shadows are getting awfully long, and nobody wants to admit they’ve noticed; it’s a particularly clever touch to unravel the salacious mystery in the lobby of the first Academy Awards, where the applause insulates the elite from any gory detail. And yet, through all that twilight gloom, one man rides a white horse in a matching double-breasted suit.

Why does the world’s greatest Western star throw his enormous hat in the ring to solve a murder mystery with a guy he just met yesterday? Because he’s Bruce Willis, that’s why – that’s just the devil-may-care kind of guy he is. His two-and-a-half minute tango feels incomplete without a Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler in-hand. He can fight, but only after taking a slapstick dive in the first half. As Garner would later complain, Bruce ad-libbed like it was going out of style,  and it’s easy to hear the man through the myth when he complains about ye olde tabloids: “Engravings? Engravings is how counterfeiters make funny money, isn’t it?” 

Three months after the release of Sunset, a different line of cowboy improv would change life – “Yippee Ki-Yay.” Nobody involved with Sunset ever had much to say about it, at least nothing nice – Garner “hated that movie” – but it’s not hard to read between the junkets. A week before Die Hard opened, Bruce admitted to the Washington Post it was the first time he’d been proud of his work, deeming himself then and forever more interesting as a solo than a double act. And if that’s not evidence enough, consider the rest of his mostly bullet-riddled career.

Canby’s faintest praise was that Sunset would “keep dedicated film scholars busy for the next 50 years.” That’s already bad sooth at 35. Nostalgia makes bad jewelers of us all, this is no hidden gem, just a fossil with a few shiny facets. The shiniest is Bruce Willis as Bruce Willis, the last time he was more likely to play a cowboy in a white hat than a cowboy in a white undershirt. It appropriately ends with him goofing off into the sunset, even if, celestially speaking, it’s setting in the wrong direction.

“Sunset” is available for digital rental or purchase.

Jeremy Herbert enjoys frozen beverages, loud shirts and drive-in theaters. When not writing about movies, he makes them for the price of a minor kitchen appliance. Jeremy lives in Cleveland, and if anyone could show him the way out, he'd really appreciate it.

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