A young man awaits execution on death row for the murder of a political boss. Although h continues to protest his innocence, only his sweetheart, the prison priest, and the warden and his wife believe him. Reporters discuss the case and similar ones, and one of them relates a story that may save the innocent man's life. Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
A gratifying success from a washed-up director and a fleabag studio
If there's an object lesson in the gap between expectation and reality, The Sun Sets At Dawn may be it. A product of the Holiday Pictures division of Eagle-Lion Films (which is sort of like saying Starvation Alley off Poverty Row), and the work of a director, Paul Sloane, whose career began in the First World War and who hadn't worked for 11 years (and who had one more Japanese movie left in him), it doesn't inspire much confidence. But it has an imaginative narrative structure and a mood and, so much as its pitiful resources would allow, even something of a look.
Patrick Waltz (here billed as Philip Shawn) is a young man awaiting execution on death row. Though of course he protests his innocence, there's not much news there. But it so happens that he'll be the first consumer of the anonymous state's newly-installed electric chair (replacing the old-fashioned, and possibly more humane, garrotte). This shift of lethal mediums has the warden and the executioner and the staff all a-twitter, leaving them little time or empathy for the human side of the story which also involves the condemned man's girlfriend (Sally Parr), who has been brought to the prison but whom he refuses to see.
The newfangled hot seat has drawn a large cadre of newspaper reporters (Percy Helton is but one of the many noir stalwarts among them), gathered at Pops' Place. This is a last-ditch bus depot/greasy spoon/post office/truck stop and motel out in the sticks, where they wait for a jitney to transport them to the prison. And here's where the movie takes its most arresting turn. In dialogue that might almost have been lifted from a Eugene O'Neill reject, the ink-stained wretches start reminiscing and speculating, cumulatively telling the story of the convict whose death they're shortly to witness and other stories which start to intersect with it.
The plot moves slowly, as piece after piece drops into place. Sloane (who also wrote the script) intercuts between the terrified young man awaiting his quietus and these old hacks who think they've seen it all (they haven't). Meanwhile, a trusty from the prison comes to collect the mail, and spots a wanted poster on the bulletin board which sets him to thinking, too....
Basically, The Sun Sets At Dawn remains little more than another death-row beat-the-clock thriller. The plot, which accommodates more than a twist or two in a 71-minute running time, is admittedly contrived, but Sloane has the decency (and wit) to justify his every contrivance. And even if its turnings leave you unimpressed, you'll have to admit that the movie's dialogue-free opening, at night at Pops' Place, is as bleak and transfixing as just about anything in the noir cycle (shoestring-budget division). The Sun Sets At Dawn proves itself a keeper, and a fitting memorial to the unsung Sloane.
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