The Sun Sets at Dawn
Posted by martinteller on November 18, 2012
“I’ve always loved you, and I always will.”
An earnest young man (Patrick Waltz) is on death row, convicted for the murder of a corrupt politician… a murder he maintains he didn’t commit, although the evidence against him is damning. His devoted girlfriend (Sally Parr) waits in torment, hoping for a last-minute reprieve. The kindly warden (Howard St. John) and sympathetic chaplain (Walter Reed) try to offer comfort, but the mood is grim. Meanwhile a pack of reporters (including familiar noir bit players Jack Reynolds, King Donovan, Charles Meredith and Percy Helton) are gathered, for it’s the state’s first execution by electric chair. Malfunctions with the chair notwithstanding, it’s going to take a miracle to save the boy.
I wanted to love this film. I wanted it to be a hidden gem. Its director, Paul Sloane, is a mystery. He helmed a couple of dozen films in the 20’s and 30’s (none of them seem particularly noteworthy) and then disappeared, only to pop up again with this one, 11 years later. He would do one more film — a Japanese one, no less — and disappear again. Who is this guy? What is his story? Where did he go and why did he come back? The young leads are equally under-the-radar. It was Waltz’s first film. He would go on for a career of bit parts and TV appearances, never again to be the star. For Sally Parr, it would be her first and only movie role, with a single minor TV part her only other credit. The pedigree of this film has “underdog story” written all over it.
And the movie has some really unusual elements. The opening scene is haunting… middle of the night, a remote café. The old man (Houseley Stevenson) who runs the café — and also serves as the town’s postmaster — steps outside as a bus pulls up. The girl, looking so sorrowful and defeated, emerges and the old man escorts her a few yards to a waiting car. It’s an entirely wordless sequence, but so loaded with melancholy and an intriguing entrance point to the film. There’s also the fact that almost none of the characters are named. Throughout the movie, there are references to “the boy” and “the girl” but only at the very end do we actually hear the boy’s name (never the girl’s, which I thought was a mistake). There’s some interesting editing, from the newspaper men telling their version of the story, cutting occasionally to hear a word or two from the boy. Or the calliope music that plays as the boy and the girl try to think about happier times… or the way we never see the boy and girl together until the last minute. And then there is that air of sadness, a despair hanging over everything.
But there are also problems. The performances are not especially interesting. I won’t say bad, but it’s kind of clear why neither of the two leads found any measure of success. Though I have to assume Parr quit the business for some other reason, given her incredibly short filmography. She doesn’t get to do much here (a lot of crying, I thought of Maria Falconetti) but she’s okay. And Waltz is okay. They’re just not that compelling. And the script is clunky, trying to do a lot of Hawksian patter with the reporters but coming off like clumsy exposition. And calling the plot’s resolution contrived is being too kind to it. But the rather farfetched synchronicity of it basically gets explained as the grace of God in the final moment, which only turned me off more. As a moody oddity, the film has intriguing aspects. As a satisfying narrative, however, it fails to deliver. Rating: Fair (63)