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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Duel in the Sun

After the phenomenal success of Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice, producing and writing the adaptation of Niven Busch's novel Duel in the Sun. It didn't work. The film was critically panned, though there are defenders of it today, notably Martin Scorsese, Directed by King Vidor, Duel in the Sun is mostly overblown melodrama and spectacle, much like Gone With the Wind but without the memorable scenes and, frankly, the kitsch.

Jennifer Jones plays a biracial (half-breed was the term used in the film) woman whose father kills her mother and hangs for it. She is sent to live with a distant cousin (Lillian Gish, Oscar-nominated) who is the wife of the owner of a vast ranch (Lionel Barrymore, in his Mr. Potter mode). Barrymore has two sons, and in Biblical fashion one is good, Joseph Cotten, and one is bad, Gregory Peck. Both fall in love with Jones, but Cotten is a gentleman while Peck just takes what he wants.

The film, true to its title, has a few duels in the baking sun. The motif of the film is the oppressive sun, as this is Texas and it can pretty fucking hot there. There are numerous shots of the sunset, and these are effective. What is not effective is the phony makeup on Jones to make her look part Indian, and her performance, while getting an Oscar nomination, is way over the top.

I also found it quite disconcerting to see Peck play such a villain. Of course, this was still early in his career. This was 1946, and the following year he would star in Gentleman's Agreement and mostly thereafter play heroes, and with To Kill an Mockingbird he would be remembered as playing characters of the greatest worth and dignity. But man, is he a bounder in this film, and it just doesn't suit him.

Every so often a good moment sneaks in. When Jones and Peck have their final confrontation, Jones has a great expression on her face, and the beads of sweat on her are a nice touch. I also liked the few bombastic scenes provided by Walter Huston as a "sinkiller," a kind of lay minister of the time. The film, in it's prologue, states that these men were charlatans. Huston makes that perfectly clear. On the other hand, Butterfly McQueen is back playing yet another dim-witted servant, showing that Selznick's ideas about race were pretty awful.

This also may the film with the most horses in it I've ever seen. The toughest job on Duel in the Sun may have been the horse wrangler.

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