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DVD SAVANT

DUEL IN THE SUN
Roadshow Edition


Duel in the Sun Roadshow Edition
Anchor Bay
1946 / Color / 1:37 full frame / Street Date March 6, 2001 / 29.95
Starring Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Butterfly McQueen, Charles Bickford, Tilly Losch
Cinematography Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan and Harold Rosson
Production Designer J. McMillan Johnson
Film Editor Hal C. Kern, John Saure and William H. Ziegler
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin

Writing credits Niven Busch, from his book, adapted by Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht and, uncredited David O. Selznick
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by King Vidor and, uncredited Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, David O. Selznick, Josef von Sternberg

A revision of a March 5, 1999 Review by Glenn Erickson

Duel in the Sun is mogul David O. Selznick's attempt to duplicate the success of his Gone With the Wind in the Western genre, a grandiose entertainment intended to do for his wife Jennifer Jones what Scarlett O'Hara did for Vivien Leigh. What he ended up making was one of the weirdest epics of all time, an undeniably entertaining but grossly overproduced film that combines powerful filmmaking and witless clichés in equal measure. Released with a saturation booking scheme that turned it into one of the most profitable Westerns ever released, Duel was called Lust In The Dust by the public, in reaction to heroine Pearl Chavez' oversexed histrionics. There's nothing unsubtle about it: scenes alternate between compelling emotion and jaw-dropping crudity without a chance to catch a breath. Modern audiences laugh uncontrollably at excessive scenes, only to applaud some breathtaking moment a few minutes later.

Synopsis:

Orphaned half-breed Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) comes to Spanish Bit, a Ponderosa-like cattle ranch run by despotic McCandless (Lionel Barrymore). There she finds kindness in the heart of ex-Dixie Belle Lillian Gish. But her romantic presence splits the empire. Bookish son Jesse (Joseph Cotton) is disillusioned when his malevolent brother Lewton (played against type by Gregory Peck) openly seduces Pearl. Both sons are forced to leave the ranch, Pearl agonizes in sexual self-loathing ("Trash! Trash! Trash!") and the picture self-destructs in an orgy of blazing Technicolor sunsets, bombastic music, and vengeful shootouts. Oh yes, and Orson Welles provides a narrative opening!

Duel in the Sun's plot and structure is proof that Selznick learned all the wrong lessons from his fevered micromanagement of GWTW. The simple story is overproduced in ways that add little to the overall impact. Several directors quit over producer interference and Selznick kept scores of writers constantly changing scenes. Without the tempering aid of GWTW's William Cameron Menzies (or perhaps, the calm behind-the-scenes advice of Val Lewton 1), Selznick's endless second-guessing and book-length memos ran riot.

The continuity of the film is such a jumble of rewrites and reshoots that some scenes seem invented just to hold the plotline together. An insignificant cowboy character named Sid delivers awkward exposition for the story's entire last act. Pearl has three almost identical scenes where she's molested by the rape-crazy Lewton; in one of them her graduation from protesting waif to brazen harlot is an on-camera transformation comparable to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Wolf Man. The whole picture has that kind of producer-induced overkill. When Pearl runs Scarlett-like, down a hill from the ranch house, you can see Selznick's desperation to make lightning strike twice.

Selznick's racial attitudes haven't improved, unfortunately. Butterfly McQueen is back as the twitterpated housemaid and is even a more exaggerated character than before. Worse, Selznick's spokesman for lost values and decency in the film, Herbert Marshall, states at his trial that his real crime was not murder, but taking a Mexican wife and thereby despoiling his family name.

Even when the characters make little sense, the acting in Duel in the Sun is excellent. Jennifer Jones was never better as Pearl, whether writhing in sexual frustration or smashing herself onto jagged rocks for the bloody finale. Gregory Peck's villainy is great fun to watch. His role goes completely against his usual underplayed decency. In the similar The Big Country a decade later he seems anemic by comparison. Joseph Cotton hasn't much to do considering this film launched his romantic pairing with Jones. Of the rest of the cast Lillian Gish is a standout, breathing life into a part that might be an extension of her character in Birth of a Nation. Her scenes as Lulubelle are dramatically valid and very moving. They make a good case for 'primitive' acting as actually being just as sophisticated as modern styles.

Fans of Rosemary's Baby probably won't recognize the evil Adrian Marcato (Sidney Blackmer): he plays the lover of Pearl Chavez' mother (Tilly Losch) in the giant barroom scene that begins Duel. 3 Losch's fiery dance is a standout, something easily guessed as the work of Josef Von Sternberg. But according to the records, he mainly helped stylize the incredible closeups of Selznick's beloved JJ. Scholars still peg Duel's basic vitality and most of its key scenes to master moviemaker King Vidor. Elsewhere reigns giddy chaos. The overwritten opening narration is a jumble of awkwardness only a pro like Orson Welles could navigate. 2 The final love-hate gundown was practically remade by Vidor seven years later for the end of Ruby Gentry. In that movie, Charlton (Lock 'n Load) Heston is the lucky man gunned down by rifle totin' Jennifer.


Anchor Bay's DVD of Duel in the Sun, the Roadshow Edition not only has more features than their earlier plain-wrap edition but is a much better transfer. The basic source material appears to be identical but the authoring is vastly improved. Looking almost as good as MGM's lavishly mounted Gone With the Wind, the Technicolor extremes of lighting and coloration are all accurate and there is virtually no low-bit rate compromising of the image. The audio is a lot stronger as well.

The Prelude and Exit music are a wonderful addition, and make this blockbuster seem like a real Roadshow attraction. The Prelude by itself is a wonderful suite of the themes from the film; Dimitri Tiomkin's powerful and emotional score is one of the reasons the movie is so easy to repeat-view. The Overture is a a second, shorter prelude and has what can only be described as a "don't censor me" narration mixed in. In 1946 both Duel and the Zanuck production Forever Amber got clobbered by the bluenoses for their promiscuous, unrepentant heroines. The opening music of Amber is sometimes marred by an added voiceover saying something like, "Being the story of a bad woman who paid for her sins!" The narration here in Duel reinforces the retribution idea, but goes on to distinguish the Walter Huston Sinkiller preacher character as an aberrant charlatan, of the kind that never fooled real Christians. Not only does this seem like total cowardice on Selznick's part (kissing up to the bible belt), but if 'real' Christians were never taken in by Sinkiller types, the narration identifies Duel in the Sun's only devout character, Lillian Gish's Lulu Belle, as un-Christian.

In the first review Savant called Duel in the Sun an acquired taste, but it's better than that. Sometimes grandiose excess for its own sake can be a very good thing. Anchor Bay's good faith in Doing it again, and Doing it right, puts their already elevated credibility quotient even higher. This is a hugely enjoyable movie.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Duel In the Sun Roadshow Edition rates:
Movie: Good++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Prelude, Overture and exit music, trailers and teasers
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: October 8, 2000


Footnotes:

1. By the time of Duel in the Sun, Selznick's former right-hand-man Val Lewton was a producer in his own right. Was the choice of Gregory Peck's character name from the Niven Busch book, or done as a nod to the Sultan of Shudders?Return

2. The narration doesn't quite read like this, but Savant always preferred to remember it as, "...and Pearl Chavez, the half-breed from South of the Border, so early to bloom and so early to die, in a final embrace with her Laughing Cowboy Lover Lew." Return

3. Fans of dance will get another opportunity to see the amazing Tilly Losch in action in the upcoming Anchor Bay DVD, Garden of Allah. Return


Are Westerns your thing? Check out Savant's other Western - related articles: Foreign Intervention and the American Western * MAN OF THE WEST - A Western We Want To See * THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RESTORED * A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE - Another Leone Restoration * Review: The Man With No Name Trilogy * Review: The Man From Laramie




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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