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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.
"The Sun Sets at Dawn" is a B-movie. Back in the 1930s-50s, B-movies
were meant as a cheap second film in a double-feature. Because they
were made quickly and inexpensively, they usually clocked in at about
55-70 minutes, had mostly unknown actors and are often today thought of
as bad films. Well, the last part is definitely not true--as some B-
movies manage to convey an excellent story and are quite entertaining.
This is definitely the case with "The Sun Sets at Dawn", as it's
extremely effective and entertaining--even without the frills of an A-
When the film begins, the state is about to execute a young man. He's been convicted of murder and still insists he's not guilty. This much isn't unusual--but what is unusual is that everyone that seems to meet him and his girlfriend believes this as well. But the governor won't stop the scheduled death and it looks pretty hopeless. Can something manage to stop this possible miscarriage of justice?
The movie excels in many ways. The performances are awfully good, the writing quite nice as well (though some today might find some of it a bit heavy-handed) and the story really makes you think twice about the morality of the death penalty--especially in cases where it was never 100% proved that the condemned is actually guilty. Well made and worth seeing.
Incidentally, somehow this film slipped into the public domain and is available for a free download at archive.org.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The production has no bankable stars and a low budget. There are less
than half a dozen sets, and some of the actors turn in performances
that might have come straight out of a high school play, maybe "Our
Town," in East Orange, New Jersey. The plot takes us beyond he level of
implausibility into the upper reaches of Zen.
Yet, despite all this, the thing works pretty well. There is an element of "High Noon" in it as the clock ticks relentlessly towards the dawn execution of "the boy" in the state's new electric chair. And, as in "Front Page," a diverse group of reporters sit around in Pop's café and post office, waiting for the bus that will take them to the prison as witnesses, meanwhile playing gin rummy and trading wisecracks and insults. Pop's Place reminded me of "The Petrified Forest." There are frequent cuts to the cell in death row, where "the boy" -- he's a young man who has put several years in the army and worked as a reporter -- tells the Padre his tale of innocence and woe. Did he murder the guy in the unique fashion described? Six shots fired in such rapid succession that they sound like a machine gun? He claims not. The Padre believes him and promises that, if he's truly innocent, God will believe him.
I used to be an usher in the Yiddish theater and there was one scene in which a similarly innocent young man was strapped into the electric chair. The playwrights allowed Mama to enter the death room, fall to her knees, and sob onto her son's lap. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, although no one can even imagine such a thing happening. Except here, too, the boy's girl friend shows up at the prison and is taken into the warden's home to be comforted by the warden's wife, offered tea, a place to lie down, a quantum of sympathy. She doesn't actually get to weep on the condemned shoulder though.
You won't believe the resolution, so I'll skip it. I don't mean that you won't believe what happens on the screen. I mean you won't believe ME if I describe it. You'll think I'm lying to you. Come to think of it, that's a pretty filthy attitude. You don't even know me and yet you accuse me of being a liar? "The boy" (Philip Shawn) spends most of his time staring into space. The Padre is too handsome for a priest but at least he can act like a professional. The editing is clumsy enough for interpolated shots of them sitting silently together, both of them staring into the unknown. The cast has a number of faces that will be recognizable to fans of older movies. Howard St. John, as the warden, was the corrupt assistant of Broderick Crawford in "Born Yesterday." King Donovan was the guy who found the "blank body" on his pool table in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Percy Helton is probably recognizable too. He's the short reporter with the turned-up nose of some kind of rodent, like a prairie dog, and has a high, hoarse, clipped voice.
Despite the precariousness of the plot, it all more or less fits together. There is a nebulous logic in which belief and doubt merge into a strangely comforting concinnity. Try it, you'll like it.
"The Sun Sets at Dawn" is a very good movie and film noir. It will be
most compelling for viewers who are not intellectually critical,
anti-religious, or cynical, and also for those viewers more willing to
cut some slack to storytellers who take a definite stance and shape
their stories accordingly, rather than attempt to be all things to all
The story has a definite noir look, with dark and moody photography. For almost its entire length, it's a noir story too, feeling moody and at times oppressive. In fact you could say that it's noir all the way through, under the interpretation that fate has a strong presence here throughout; and recognizing that fate doesn't produce all bad endings or all good endings either. Think of the ending of "Repeat Performance" as an example of a noir film ending that's somewhat analogous. There are places, however, where the film becomes quite strongly melodrama, losing a sense of doom but yet going into deep feeling and questioning of life, something like in "Voice in the Wind". Noir need not be hardboiled. This one gets to tugging on the heartstrings pretty heavily in some places, and becomes somewhat leaden and slow-moving at those times. But overall, the story and pacing hold up.
A man, Philip Shawn, is being readied for the electric chair. The chair is being tested to make sure it works properly. There have been problems before. Shawn's girl friend, Sally Parr, arrives by bus on a dark night. She's greeted by the craggy and grizzled proprietor, Houseley Stevenson, of a roadhouse restaurant and post office station. Reporters are there too, ready to be bussed to the nearby prison. Parr will go there to and be near her beau from childhood. A padre, Walter Reed, comforts Shawn and hears his story. He is innocent, he says. He has been framed. We learn his back story by a clever sequence in which the reporters at the cafe act out the murder intercut with Shawn informing Reed. We understand why he was convicted. At the prison, the warden, Howard St. John, is sympathetic to Shawn and Parr, but what can he do?
More people begin to arrive at the cafe as the story develops further. There is a convict, wrongly convicted, who fetches the mail. There is the owner of a truck company and two drivers. There are three policemen. Stevenson reflects the anxiety felt by those who await the execution, knowing it will be at 5:35. The tension rises. New developments occur. There may be light at the end of the tunnel. Then again, there may not be. Time is short.
Look for Percy Helton, Charles Arnt and Sam Edwards in their roles as reporters. Ms. Parr handles well a difficult scene in which she tearfully overcomes her tears as Reed relays Shawn's messages to her.
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