Savant Review: Standard Edition
DUEL IN THE SUN
Duel in the Sun, Standard Edition
1946 / Color / 1:37 / Single Layered, single-sided, Dolby Digital English 5.1 mono
Starring Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish
Original Music Dimitri Tiompkin
Writing credits David O. Selznick, Oliver H. P. Garrett from the novel by Niven Busch
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by King Vidor
Reviewed 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 and 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 jaw-dropping crudity and
compelling emotion without a chance to catch a breath. Modern audiences laugh
uncontrollably at excessive scenes, only to applaud some breathtaking moment a
few minutes later.
Orphaned half-breed Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) comes to the Ponderosa-like cattle
ranch Spanish Bit run by despotic Lionel Barrymore, and finds kindness in the
heart of ex-Dixie Belle Lillian Gish. But her romantic presence splits the empire
apart. 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 narrative
Duel in the Sun's plot and structure is proof that Selznick learned all the
wrong lessons from 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. 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 ends
up delivering most of the setup and motivations 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
white-gowned 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, if anything, 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 trashing his family name.
Even when the characters don't make much 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 into jagged rocks in 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
Anchor Bay's DVD of Duel in the Sun like most of their output, is a solid
product at a level of quality just under the best work from major studios. The
Technicolor hues of Lee Garmes' images are accurate, and William Cameron Menzies'
distinctive production design looks great in the film's original 1:33 aspect ratio.
The only drawback is a slightly greater awareness of compression artifacts;
especially at the beginning. Some fades look a little blocky, details like smoke
in the air sometimes don't move smoothly, and there seem to be dozens of little
micro-cuts in a few closeups that betray some erratic updating of pixels. Yet
many scenes are just as vivid as Gone With the Wind, like the perfect
smoke rings blown by Joseph Cotton (ch 6, 25 00).
The disc is a vast improvement over the miserable Fox VHS version (there has never
been a laserdisc). Unless you count the nice little reproduction insert of a
reissue poster, there are no extras, yet just having this unique title available
at all earns my gratitude. That Anchor Bay is taking time out from rare Horror
classics is our gain.
Duel in the Sun is something of an acquired taste, but is one of those
titles worth giving a shot if you're not afraid of grandiose extremes. Once
accustomed to the exaggerated style, it becomes a hugely enjoyable movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Duel in the Sun (Standard Edition) rates:
Packaging: Keep Case
Reviewed: March 5, 1999
The Special Roadshow Edition of Duel in the Sun is also reviewed
here at Savant.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson