Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum made up a perfect pair in an underrated movie. Don't fix what isn't broken, right? Just three years later, the duo teamed up again with equally positive results, this time in 1960's The Sundowners.
Working and living in the Australian Outback, Irish-Australian Paddy Carmody (Mitchum) is constantly on the go, taking odd jobs wherever he can to support his family. Along for the ride with him is his wife, Ida (Kerr), and his teenage son, Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). While Paddy loves the roving, even nomadic lifestyle, Ida and Sean want to settle down somewhere, especially one farm along a river they find in Bulinga. Paddy can't quite bring himself to do it, refusing to be tied down anywhere, but for the sake of his family, he takes a job shearing sheep at a ranch with hopes of saving enough money to purchase the farm. Paddy's old ways may prove to be harder to fix than anything as Ida and Sean dream of their farm.
Thanks to my own forgetfulness and stubbornness, this 1960 movie from director Fred Zinnemann has long avoided me. I was finally able to catch up with it, and it was well worth the wait. This is a big movie, clocking in at 133 minutes, with a scale that's meant to impress you. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia page, Zinnemann spent 12 weeks in Australia shooting everything from the land itself to shots of sheep herding. The actual movie -- filmed on location with the cast in Australia -- looks great, from the vast horizons in the Outback to the towns that pop up along the way. Some money was clearly spent on establishing that sense of reality, and it pays dividends immediately.
For all its impressive scale though, 'Sundowners' is most successful because it works in terms of story on a personal level. It is a big, expansive story, but the focus is on the Carmody family and their journey (through good and bad) as they search for some sort of normal. Paddy? He loves his roving life. Ida and Sean? They want a home to call their own. In terms of its portrayal of a family, the story reminded me at times of a John Ford story where family (immediate and extended) is the most important thing in life. Thankfully, it avoids all the schmaltzy, sugary sweet portrayals of family that Ford often fell back on. No slapstick humor here, just the authentic feel of a family striving to be together and to be something together.
Some actors and actresses just have chemistry, and that's certainly the case with Kerr and Mitchum working together. Showing off that same chemistry they had in 'Mr. Allison,' the duo gets the ball rolling immediately. Some on-screen couples just had that back and forth that doesn't feel like acting. Like here, it has the very real feel of a couple that has spent years and years married through the trials and tribulations, the good and the bad. Who better to play an amiable but sometimes hard-drinking middle-aged man who refuses to be tied down to one single place? I can't come up with anyone better than Mitchum for that part. As for Kerr, she is quickly climbing my list of favorite actresses. She has this easy-going charm that is hard not to fall for. Her Ida obviously loves Paddy, but she admits he also can drive her batty at times too. Their relationship doesn't feel forced. It feels genuine.
What will set this apart from a lot of aspiring epics is the cast. We're not talking Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia here. Instead, it's an epic-looking movie that focuses on a handful of key characters on a smaller scale so in other words? Not a big cast. Peter Ustinov is a scene-stealer as Rupe Venneker, a former ship's captain (possibly) who headed back to land and in general loves everything about life. He signs on with the Carmodys as they undertake driving a sheep herd to market, working as a drover alongside Paddy, and becomes almost an adopted member of the family. In just his second credited role, Anderson Jr. holds his own on-screen with Kerr, Mitchum and Ustinov. His wide-eyed innocence at the world is a good fit alongside his roving Dad, weary Mom, and always mischievous (in a good way) Rupe. In an Oscar nominated part for Best Supporting Actress, Glynnis Johns plays Mrs. Firth, a hotel/saloon owner who takes a shine to Ustinov's Rupe. Also, look for John Meillon, Ronald Fraser and Chips Rafferty as some of Paddy's fellow sheep-shearers.
Struggling in theaters in 1960, 'Sundowners' apparently didn't catch on with audiences. Zinnemann thought it was because it was advertised as a From Here to Eternity knock-off of sorts. Again, Wikipedia is never wrong, right? Whatever the reason for its struggles, I liked it. It's nothing profound or different, but just a good story about family. The road-weary Kerr looking at a done-up woman on a train and wanting to be her, even just for a second. The roving Mitchum, genuinely distraught after a mistake he made cost the family dearly. It's the little things in this quasi-epic that never aspires to EPIC status, but it just don't need to. Enjoy.
The Sundowners <---TCM trailer/clips (1960): ***/****