Sunset (1988 film)

Sunset is a 1988 American crime mystery Western film written and directed by Blake Edwards and starring Bruce Willis as Western actor Tom Mix, who teams up with lawman Wyatt Earp, portrayed for the second time in a theatrical film by James Garner. Based on an unpublished novel by Rod Amateau, the plot has Mix and Earp team up to solve a murder in Hollywood in 1929.[4]

Theatrical release poster by Drew Struzan
Directed byBlake Edwards
Screenplay byBlake Edwards
Based onSunset (unpublished manuscript)
by Rod Amateau[1]
Produced byTony Adams
CinematographyAnthony B. Richmond
Edited byRobert Pergament
Music byHenry Mancini
Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica
Hudson Hawk Films Ltd.
ML Delphi Premier Productions
The Blake Edwards Company
Distributed byTriStar Pictures
Release date
  • April 29, 1988 (1988-04-29)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$19,000,000 (estimated)[2]
Box office$4.6 million[3]

Although Sunset had some comedic elements, it veered much more to the period mystery genre of old Hollywood. Reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, struggled trying to define the film. Ebert noted, "The strangest thing about 'Sunset' is that it's not a comedy, not exactly. It has some laughs, but it's a sort of low-key, elegiac mood film ..."[5]

While Willis received top billing in Sunset, Garner actually has much more screen time in the film. This was the second film in which Garner played Wyatt Earp, the first being John Sturges's Hour of the Gun, released in 1967. This was director Edwards' second collaboration with Willis, whom he directed in Blind Date (1987).


In Hollywood in the late 1920s during the waning days of the industry's transition to sound film, producer and studio head Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell) wants to produce an epic Western film about Wyatt Earp. Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) is cast as the great United States Marshal and the real Earp (James Garner) is on the set as a technical adviser.

While Earp and Mix, the "real" and "reel" western heroes, are involved in their film adventure, they also get caught up in an actual case of murder, prostitution and corruption. Together, they try to straighten out the problems of the missing son of Earp's former girlfriend, Christina (Patricia Hodge). She is now the wife of studio boss Alfie Alperin and he is not pleased by Earp's investigation. Hostess Cheryl King (Mariel Hemingway) becomes romantically involved with Earp.

Alfie's sister, Victoria Alperin (Jennifer Edwards) is dating a notorious mobster and all three were at the scene of the murder of Madam Candice Gerard. Soon Earp unveils the true sadistic character of Alfie Alperin. Two of his accomplices, studio Chief of Studio Police Dibner (M. Emmet Walsh) whose interest is in protecting Alperin and corrupt Capt. Blackworth (Richard Bradford) turn nasty.

Mix and Earp get to fight a real gunfight at a real isolated ranch, with Mix telling Earp "I wish there was a camera here" before drawing a real gun.

After the death of Christina, matters become personal for Earp, leading to the explosive climax between Mix, Alperin, and Earp.


Historical contextEdit

Although largely fictitious, the story does contain elements of historical fact. Sunset depicts Wyatt Earp as a technical advisor to a fictional Tom Mix film of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in which Mix portrays the famous western marshal. Earp had been living in the Los Angeles area since about 1910. He had served as an unpaid technical adviser on some early silent Westerns from 1915 on and knew Western stars William S. Hart and Mix.[6]

When he died on January 13, 1929, at the age of 80, Earp's funeral featured both Hart and Mix as pallbearers.[7][Note 1]

Both Mix's and Earp's personas are part of the plot in Sunset, with each figure alternately exploiting and deflating their public images. While Earp recounts some of his exploits, dropping names like Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane, he remains a taciturn and steadfast former lawman. The gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona had lasted only 30 seconds, but it would end up defining Earp for the rest of his life.[8]

Mix also deals with his personal story, dismissing much of the conjecture about his origins, yet showing some of the bravado and derring-do that characterized his screen career. He compared himself as a "movie star cowboy" to the made-up heroics of Buffalo Bill Cody. His skills as a horseman, however, were faithfully derived from an early life as a cowboy; the impresario personality came later.[9]


Mariel Hemingway, like Bruce Willis and James Garner, signed up for the film for the chance to work with Blake Edwards. Hemingway confessed, "The movie sounded a little chaotic, but it had a secret weapon: it was directed by Blake Edwards who had made Breakfast at Tiffany's, a movie that was almost a religion with me. I couldn't pass up the chance to work with him."[10]

Garner had fond memories of working with Edwards in Victor Victoria (1982), and Willis and Edwards had a close working relationship after Willis had made his film debut in Edwards' Blind Date. Throughout the pre-production phases of the film, Edwards counseled his young star that, "... he couldn't rely on the jokes and the leer" that had been his trademark in the Moonlighting television series (1985–1989).[11] The relationship between the two male leads was not as sunny. After filming, Garner said he would never work with Willis again. "Willis is high school. He's not that serious about his work. He thinks he's so clever he can just walk through it, make up dialogue and stuff. I don't think you work that way."[12]

Sunset featured numerous stunts similar to those performed in early silent films. The stunt coordinator for the film was Joe Dunne. Stunts were performed by Eddie Braun, Roydon Clark, Cheryl Wheeler Duncan, Tom Elliott, Cindy Folkerson, Allan Graf, Bill Hart, Bob Herron, Norman Howell, Jimmy Medearis, Denney Pierce, Jeff Ramsey, Neil Summers, Mike Washlake, Ted White, Brian J. Williams, Bobby Burns, Linda Fetters, and Keii Johnston, who was the stunt double for Bruce Willis.[13]

The running gag throughout the film was that Wyatt Earp cannot drive, though he does so on more than one occasion. Garner was considered an expert stunt driver and did quite a lot of his own driving on his TV series, The Rockford Files (1974–1980).[Note 2]

Edwards went to great lengths to recreate the 1920s Hollywood era, including a recreation of the 1929 Academy Awards dinner, complete with a mime act that closely resembled the antics of silent screen comedians such as Charlie Chaplin. This focus on period detail was noted as one of the serious flaws in the staging of the film.[15]

Principal photography on Sunset took place from April 6, 1987 and wrapped on July 2, 1987.[16] The filming locations included locations in southern California: Ambassador Hotel, 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For exteriors, the Orange Empire Railroad Museum, Perris, California (railroad scenes) and the Bell Ranch, Santa Susana, California and Melody Ranch, 24715 Oak Creek Avenue, Newhall, California were utilized. Studio work took place at Culver City Studios.[17]

Historical inaccuraciesEdit

  • The film features Earp attending the 1st Academy Awards which took place on May 16, 1929. Historically, Wyatt Earp died on January 13, 1929 (at the age of 80). He was ill prior to his death.
  • The film omits any mention of Josephine Marcus, who had been Earp's common law wife for over twenty-five years at the time of his death. In 1929 she lived in Los Angeles with Earp.


The musical soundtrack for Sunset was scored by Henry Mancini.[13] The film features the song "Black and Tan Fantasy" by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.[18]


Box officeEdit

Studio executives were divided on how to promote Sunset as most filmgoers would have expected a Blake Edwards film to be a comedy. The trailer began with the catchphrase "The following story is almost true ... give or take a lie or two" and emphasized comedic scenes. Upon release, Sunset was a box office failure, produced on a $19 million budget, and making only $4.6 million domestically.


Sunset earned predominately negative reviews from critics and the public alike. Most reviewers noted that Garner's screen presence was the only thing that made the film watchable. Hal Hinson in his review for The Washington Post contrasted the impact of the two male stars: "Ultimately, 'Sunset' plays like deluxe dinner theater fare. It's a diversion to take along with your after-meal coffee and dessert. Garner's western suavity is the only grace note. Few performers have generated the sort of good will that Garner has, and this may be the most solid work he's ever done in the movies. The figure he cuts is an evocative one. Watching him, you may think you smell a trace of sagebrush."[19]

Film critic Robert Horton was scathing in his review of Sunset, calling it "... a moribund movie made by a collection of people who have an abundance of talent. How does a movie like this go wrong?" He laid the blame squarely on Edward's limp direction. "... Edwards seems to have lost his verve. Sunset crawls along with little conviction or life."[20]

Sunset holds a 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes film review aggregator based on 14 reviews by critics.[21]

Awards and nominationsEdit

Patricia Norris, costume designer for Sunset was nominated for Best Costume Design at the 1989 Academy Awards.[22] However, winning the 1989 Razzie Award for Blake Edwards for Worst Director and nominating Mariel Hemingway for Worst Supporting Actress, was a dubious distinction.[23]



  1. ^ Sunset shows Earp attending the first Academy Awards presentation on May 16, 1929; the actual event occurred months after his death.[6]
  2. ^ Garner did his own driving in Grand Prix (1966) and competed in races after-hours; he was considered one of the "best" actor drivers, ranked just behind Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.[14]


  1. ^ McLellan, Dennis. "Rod Amateau, 79; writer, director, producer of sitcoms, feature films". Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2003. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  2. ^ "Box office: business for Sunset". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: June 9, 2012.[unreliable source?]
  3. ^ "Sunset". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: June 9, 2012.
  4. ^ "Sunset". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: June 9, 2012.[unreliable source?]
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Review: 'Sunset'",, April 29, 1988. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Barra, Allen. "Wyatt On the Set!" True West Magazine (archive), originally published May 7, 2012. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  7. ^ "Profiles of the Earps and Doc Holliday". Big Nose Kate's Saloon, Tombstone, Arizona. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  8. ^ Walker, Dale E. "Standing Tall". American Cowboy, Volume 14, Series 4, November–December 2007, p. 152.
  9. ^ Jensen 2006, pp. 183–184.
  10. ^ Hemingway and Greenman 2015, p. 184.
  11. ^ Parker 1997, p. 72.
  12. ^ Grobel, Lawrence. "James Garner: You ought to be in pictures" Archived 2011-11-28 at the Wayback Machine. Movieline, May 1, 1994. Retrieved: April 19, 2012.
  13. ^ a b "Full cast and crew for Sunset". IMDb. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.[unreliable source?]
  14. ^ Garner and Winokur 2011, pp. 101–105.
  15. ^ Parker 1997, pp. 73–74.
  16. ^ "Miscellaneous notes: Sunset (1988)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  17. ^ "Locations for Sunset". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: June 9, 2012.[unreliable source?]
  18. ^ "Soundtracks for Sunset". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: June 9, 2012.[unreliable source?]
  19. ^ Hinson, Hal. "Review: 'Sunset' (PG-13)". Washington Post, April 29, 1988. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  20. ^ Horton, Robert. "Sunset". What a Feeling, originally published in The Herald (Everett, Washington), April 1988. Retrieved: March 25, 2016.
  21. ^ "Review: Sunset (1988)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: June 26, 2021.
  22. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
  23. ^ Wilson, John (September 3, 2007). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 9780446510080. Retrieved December 4, 2019 – via Google Books.


  • Garner, James and John Winokur. The Garner Files: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-4260-5.
  • Hemingway, Mariel and Ben Greenman. Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family. New York: Regan Arts, 2015. ISBN 978-1-941393-23-9.
  • Jensen, Richard. The Amazing Tom Mix: The Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies. Bloomington, Indiana: IUniverse, 2006. ISBN 978-0-5953-5949-3.
  • Parker, John. Bruce Willis: The Unauthorised Biography. London: Virgin Books, 1997. ISBN 978-1-8522-7652-2.

External linksEdit