Thursday, January 6, 2022

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Duel in the Sun was David O. Selznick’s 1946 attempt to do a western in the Gone With the Wind style, an epic western. Selznick also saw it as a vehicle that would make his girlfriend Jennifer Jones into the biggest star in Hollywood. The problem, predictably, was that Selznick did what he always did. He interfered constantly in the production, driving away several directors and turning the production into a shambles. The script was rewritten countless times. Selznick took a hand in the writing. Only David O. Selznick could take a basically sound idea and turn it into a bombastic over-produced mess. In spite of all this Duel in the Sun (derisively known as Lust in the Dust) has its good points and manages to be entertaining in an eccentric sort of way.

It starts with a musical prelude. These musical preludes were the worst idea Hollywood ever came up with, this one one goes on and on and on and makes an already bloated movie even more bloated. At 146 minutes this movie is about an hour too long.

The story begins with the execution of Pearl Chavez’s father for murder. Pearl is half-Indian which explains the makeup job on Jennifer Jones who plays Pearl.

Her father’s dying wish was for Pearl to be sent to live with his second cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). Laura Belle had been the movie of Pearl’s father’s life but she married a Yankee senator instead, Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). Laura Belle and the senator have two sons. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the good son. Lewton (known as Lewt) is the bad son. He’s a wild one.

Both sons take an interest in Pearl. Jesse’s interest is, naturally, noble and honourable. Of course it might have helped if he’d actually told her he loved her. Naturally Lewt’s interest in her is not the least bit honourable.

Give the choice between the decent honourable Jesse and bad boy Lewt Pearl naturally ends up with the bad boy. The trouble is that Pearl thinks Lewt will marry her. Lewt, having already had her, has no interest in marriage and in any case a McCanles is not going to marry a half-Indian girl.

There’s plenty of material for melodrama in all this and it’s melodrama we get, in a gloriously overheated style.

In 1946 it was very unusual for a western to be shot in colour. Duel in the Sun isn’t just in colour, it’s in amazingly lurid Technicolor. In keeping with the chaotic nature of the production three cinematographers worked on the film. And visually it really is extraordinary. It looks totally artificial and that turns out to be one of the movie’s biggest strengths. This is melodrama. The more artificial the setting the better.

There are some staggeringly brilliant visual moments. There are also some cringe-inducing moments.

The acting is all over the map. Lionel Barrymore is, as always, hammy but hamminess works in melodrama. Jennifer Jones gives a histrionic but entertaining performance. I suspect that the main problem with her performance was the constant script changes ordered by Selznick which had the result of making Pearl’s behaviour wildly inconsistent.

Joseph Cotten gives his standard Joseph Cotten performance. Which is OK, there’s nothing terribly wrong with a standard Joseph Cotten performance.

The big surprise is Gregory Peck. On paper he was miscast as the bad boy Lewt but in fact he’s terrific. If only he’d been given more rôles like this one, rôles that actually required him to act, instead of being cast endlessly as dull worthy priggish bores.

Characters in this movie do illogical things that are out of character simply because the messed-up script requires them to do so, even though those things don’t make a lick of sense.

Jesse is a problem. He’s supposed to be the honourable brother but I disliked him intensely. He could have saved Pearl from a whole lot of suffering if he’d just grabbed her, kissed her passionately and told her she was going to marry him. But he didn’t, because he’s an uptight self-righteous prig and I couldn’t help feeling that his attitude towards her is no better than Lewt’s, he’s just less honest about it. He might be excited by a woman like Pearl, but he’s not willing to marry her.

There was plenty in Duel in the Sun to shock the moral watchdogs of the time. Pearl obviously sleeps nude, at a time when Hollywood had married couples wearing pyjamas and sleeping in separate beds. She goes skinny-dipping. She goes skinny-dipping with a man watching her. It’s made quite explicit that Pearl and Lewt have sex. Whether Lewt forced her or not is open to debate. When Lewt treats her rough Pearl gets really excited. At a time when women in Hollywood movies were not supposed to experience lust Pearl’s lust for Lewt is very obvious. Bad boys get her really hot.

There are moments that are genuinely affecting and there are other moments that are supposed to be deeply affecting but end up being laugh-out-loud funny.

Duel in the Sun
is not a western. Selznick had no interest in making a western. It has a western setting, it has cowboys and it has some typical western plot elements but it does not have the feel of a western. It’s pure melodrama aimed (like all Selznick’s movies) at a female audience. It’s Gone With the Wind with cowboys. The struggle between a doomed aristocratic society and the new world of industry and democratic mass culture which drove Gone With the Wind is paralleled by the struggle between Jackson McCanles (who is essentially a feudal lord) and progress as represented by the railroad men.

Duel in the Sun is a sex melodrama. Every single significant action by the three central characters is driven by sex - sexual lust or sexual jealousy. And all the events of the past involving Pearl’s father, Jackson McCanles and Laura Belle were driven by sex. This is in fact a sex movie. In 1946 all of this had to be communicated by hints and suggestions. This is one 1940s movie that would have benefited greatly from including moderately graphic sex scenes and nudity. Nothing in this movie makes any sense at all unless we understand that Pearl decides on a course of action and then as soon as she sets eyes on Lewt her conscious mind goes out the window and she becomes a seething mass of woman-lust. And Lewt decides on a course of action and then he sets eyes on Pearl and his conscious mind goes out the window and he becomes a seething mass of man-lust. Many of Jesse’s actions make no sense unless we understand the strength of his sexual passion for Pearl and the extent of his sexual jealousy. For the movie to really work the sexual temperature needed to be turned up much much higher than was possible in 1946.

The movie has Selznick’s fingerprints all over it. Selznick gave directors nightmares but he wasn’t always entirely wrong. He believed that the key to success was to attract the female audience. He understood that women liked movies about love but he also understood that women liked moves about overwhelming sexual passions. Women liked sexy movies. A big glossy sex melodrama would be a guaranteed winner. His basic idea about Duel in the Sun was absolutely sound. The trouble was his constant meddling.

Duel in the Sun cannot be judged as a western because it isn’t one. It has to be judged for what it is. It’s a melodrama and it’s a women’s picture. Personally I like melodramas and I have no problem at all with women’s pictures. Duel in the Sun is a woman’s sex melodrama that almost works but it’s hampered by the ludicrous restrictions of the Production Code and by a script that isn’t as coherent as one might have wished. It doesn’t hang together as well as it should.

There’s a good write-up on this movie at Riding the High Country. Colin liked this movie a bit more than I did.

Duel in the Sun has its flaws but it’s fascinating. Highly recommended on the strength of its very distinctive flavour.

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