Monday, February 2, 2009

Target #257: Duel in the Sun (1946, King Vidor)

TSPDT placing: #540
Directed by: King Vidor, Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, David O. Selznick, Josef von Sternberg (all but Vidor uncredited)
Written by: Niven Busch (novel), Oliver H.P. Garrett (adaptation), David O. Selznick (screenplay), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Orson Welles (voice)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

With Duel in the Sun (1946), David O. Selznick was obviously trying to emulate the massive success of his Gone With the Wind (1939), and, though the picture is now widely regarded as a failure, I found it remarkably entertaining. This overcooked multi-million-dollar Western epic is dripping with its excesses – the music is loud and sweeping, the melodrama is almost operatic, and the dazzling Technicolor palette is a feast for the eyes. When Selznick gives us a sunset, he damn well gives us a SUNSET! Such an achievement, guided by the producer's fastidious tastes, demanded the efforts of no less than seven directors, including Selznick himself, though only King Vidor received on screen credit; William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg and William Cameron Menzies were among the filmmakers whose efforts were disposed of during the course of production. 'Duel in the Sun' might also be the most "epic" two-hour film I've ever seen. The story covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and the vivid cinematic style, making copious use of close-ups, is occasionally prescient of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns.

Then there's the cast, of course. Jennifer Jones plays Pearl Chavez, a half-breed Injun who is invited to live on a respected Texas ranch after her father (Herbert Marshall) murders his unfaithful wife and her lover. Pearl's ethnicity is shamelessly exploited to perpetuate the stereotype that Native Americans inherently possess some sort of uncontrollable base sexuality; Pearl spends most of the film fighting to keep her clothes on, and she is instinctively drawn to Lewt (Gregory Peck), a downright bastard with almost adolescent sexual urges. Joseph Cotten plays the selfless McCanles brother, and Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore (probably the only Hollywood actor to carry on a prolific career from a wheelchair) are excellent as the owners of the ranch. The cast is rounded off nicely by Charles Bickford as a genial rancher, and Walter Huston, who hilariously overplays his role as a preacher ("The Sinkiller") and steals every scene. Indeed, most of the performers overplay their roles, perhaps recognising that the story (adapted from a novel by Niven Busch) would not work if played entirely straight.What I found most interesting about Duel in the Sun is how, even as early as 1946, it subverted the traditional notions of honour and nobility that formed the backbone of the Western genre. Joseph Cotten's character remains the film's only decent male, and yet he is dismissed mid-way through the film, and must settle on marrying a woman who is far less sensuous and desirable than Pearl Chavez. The film's climax involves two lascivious lovers scrambling through the dirt to each other's arms, only seconds after mortally wounding each other with bullets (inspiring the film's derisive nickname "Lust in the Dust"). Their attraction is purely physical – Pearl is disgusted by Lewt's moral decadence, and yet is inexplicably drawn to his embrace, even after sealing his demise. If the film's intention was to present Pearl's struggle for acceptance into "honourable" white society, then she nevertheless ends the film as she started, stranded between conflicting instincts and emotions that she can't control. Her bid for nobility has failed. Perhaps this is the birth of the Revisionist Western.

Currently my #3 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
3) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
4) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
5) The Locket (John Brahm)
6) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak)
7) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall)
8) Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
9) A Night in Casablanca (Archie Mayo)


Jump_Raven said...

I have to say this wasn't one of my favorites. I saw it a couple of weeks ago. It's beautiful, is very reminiscent of Gone With The Wind, and the shootout reminded me of a Peckinpah or Tarantino film. However, the story was kind of boring.

ackatsis said...

Point taken. Personally, though, I do think that Gregory Peck completely nailed the role - did he ever play another such scumbag?

Captain Ahab doesn't count!

Jump_Raven said...

He might have in The Boys From Brazil, but I haven't seen it. I have only seen 5 of his movies.

You're absolutely right about him nailing the part. It's his role, along with the sex and the violence that make this film stand out for its time even if it isn't my cup of tea.