The Sundowners (1960)

Jack Warner was quite set on filming the new Aussie talein Arizona; Australia was a long way away and production would undoubtedly be costly. Besides, he had said, ship in a couple kangaroos —  really, who would know the difference? Zinnemann held his ground though, and shooting began shortly afterwards. The resulting film was The Sundowners 1960.

Set in the 1920s, the movie recounts the story of a little family, the simple and good-natured Carmodys. The title of the film, The Sundowners, is a reference to an old Australian term for people like our protagonists. They are the kind of men and women who go where work takes them; people who make their homes wherever they find themselves when the sun goes down. Patriarch of the family is Robert Mitchum’s Paddy, a gentle drover satisfied with their current way of life. As the film progresses though, it becomes clear that his wife and son wish for something different: a home to call their own.

Caught between his family’s desires to settle down and his own determination to remain a wanderer, the character of Paddy Carmody remains one of Robert Mitchum’s most distinctive and interesting achievements. Magnified through Robert’s signature understated technique, it is an inner conflict, a constant clash between the irresponsible ruffian and tender husband, that makes Carmody so memorable. Deborah Kerr as the wife Ida, gives an equally terrific performance. Like her costar, she steps out of the usual mould of refined glamour and tackles the role with both great sensitivity and a delightful exuberance.

Of the three cinematic pairings of Kerr and Mitchum, it is arguably The Sundowners that most effectively portrays the ups and downs of a mature relationship. Throughout the film, we are presented with some fantastic two shots which highlight their sincere and enduring devotion to each other. The four stills pictured above are fine examples of this; the balance of form and colour, and of course the talents of our actors, come together to reveal the subtle harmony of husband and wife.

Some may feel that the film, while undeniably enchanting, doesn’t seem to go anywhere; in other words, that it lacks the depth that one feels a ‘real’ classic owes to an audience. For me though, the narrative style of The Sundowners, a self-assured string of loosely-connected episodes, is in actuality quite befitting. Like the Carmodys, our movie often meanders down unexpected paths, but they are never unnecessary.  Instead, each individual incident, however small or seemingly trivial, adds something more to the vivid portrait of a devoted family.

It’s when viewing films like thisthat you really pine for those glory days of Color by Technicolor. I made some mention of camerawork earlier, but I do believe that there is no such thing as too much praise, especially when the appraisee in question is the magnificent Jack Hildyard! His cinematography here has a kind of sweetly abandoned romanticism about it, without too much of the unabashed sentimentality that many westerns seem revel in. In short, it really is an ideal combination.

Despite its innate simplicity, Zinnemann weaves the film’s tale with an endearing liveliness, perfectly in keeping with the characters he so affectionately brought to life. The Sundowners is a unique, truly touching piece, just as timeless as it was when it first graced our screens over 50 years ago.

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