"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Duel in the Sun (Selznick, 1946)

A BIG duel



To be brutally frank, Duel in the Sun is a bit of a Western soap opera. Like The Big Sky, it's another of those BIG productions, classic King Vidor stuff, with big-name stars and Selznick production. Dimitri Tiomkin wrote an imposing score. Orson Welles narrated it in a voiceover. There is grandiose Technicolor photography of the Arizona locations with no fewer than three "directors of photography".

It has a sultry half-breed in the shapely shape of Jennifer Jones (Mrs. Selznick) who seduces both Joseph Cotten, the dependable son of the rancher, and the wild, bad boy, Gregory Peck. The film was panned as "lust in the dust" but it's lavish and rousing and huge, and I must say that while Cotten is poor (he always was in Westerns) Peck is great. He clearly relished the part.

It's a standard range-war plot but with many different threads or sub-plots. Some of the minor parts are very well done, Harry Carey as a tough legal officer, for example, or Charles Bickford as the rival (but poorer) cattleman, who also falls for Mrs. Selznick. I always thought Bickford a great talent.

Lionel Barrymore is the almost megalomaniac Senator McCanles, big rancher in a wheelchair who owns half of the West and wants the rest. Big ranchers in wheelchairs or on crutches were quite the thing in Westerns. One thinks of  Arch Strobie in Vengeance Valley, Bull Herrick in Robbers Roost or Lew Wilkison in The Violent Men. I'm sure there are more but I can't think of them right now. They often have ne'er-do-well spoilt sons - Robert Walker in Vengeance Valley, Peck in The Big Duel. These sons, Peck especially, remind me of Spike Kenedy, spoilt-rotten scion of a cattle baron of the Texas Panhandle, who shot and killed the singer Dora Hand in Dodge, was caught by a posse led by Bat Masterson but who got off with his rich daddy's lawyers on the case. Dr. Hoyt quite liked him but he seems to have been a real sleazebag.

Even the title was a bit corny, of course, and there were "Duels" in Western film titles all over the place: Duel at Apache Wells, Duel at Diablo, Duel at Silver Creek, Duel on the Mississippi, and so on.

It cost six million 1940s dollars and was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. Selznick probably hoped it would be Gone With The Wind II but it wasn't that in box-office terms, though it had certain similarities in luridness and bad writing. What it was, though, was "one of those thoroughly entertaining bad movies that prove by comparison how turgid De Mille was." (Brian Garfield). You can at least watch The Big Duel, unlike Gone With the Wind (an expensive filming of a cheap novel).

Lust in the Dust was based on a novel by Niven Busch, ex-editor of Time magazine turned novelist and screenwriter who the following year would write the excellent Pursued and the year after that The Furies.

The worst aspect is the quite dreadful acting by Mrs. Selznick (it's so bad it's hilarious) but Peck is great and a few of the minor characters are good too.



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