Film review of the western Duel In the Sun (1946) starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck.
Director: King Vidor. Selznick International
Producer: David O. Selznick.
Writers: David O. Selznick, Oliver P. Garrett.
Camera: Lee Garmes, Hal Rosson, Ray Rennahan.
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin.
Sets: J. McMillan Johnson.
Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Joan Tetzel, Tilly Losch, Butterfly McQueen.
After her upright father (Marshall) shoots dead her wayward Indian mother (Losch), young Pearl Chavez (Jones) is sent to live with her father’s cousin and former sweetheart, the gentle Laura Belle McCanles (Gish). Despite Laura Belle’s husband the Senator (Barrymore) taking an instant, invidious dislike to her, she settles into the house and is soon being romanced by his two sons, the goodly Jesse (Cotton) and dangerous Lewt (Peck). Desperate to conform and be a lady like Laura Belle, she none the less gravitates toward the wild and rough-hewn Lewt. He refuses to marry her and make her respectable, but also won’t let another man take her from him. After killing one kindly, would-be suitor (Bickford) and attempting to murder his own brother, Pearl has to take control of the escalating violence and also the man she loves.
Over-baked, over-blown, over-done, whatever description one wishes to tag onto Selznick’s unapologetically frenzied western, it almost certainly won’t involve the words classy or tasteful.
This is not a criticism, in fact, it is as much praise as a reviewer could heap on a film that is so enjoyably and giddily consumed with its own frenetic energy, sexual lawlessness and lustful posturing. Indeed, it’s common nick-name both at the the time of its release and in the modern era is Lust In the Dust. Trash film maestro John Waters would even make his own gender-bending homage to Duel under that title in 1985, starring transvestite actress Divine (it’s worth noting that Jones frequently describes herself in Duel as being nothing more than ‘trash. Trash, trash, trash, trash’).
Like Waters’ films, Duel throws subtlety out of the window, the type of Hollywood cinema where pathetic fallacy is ramped up along with the hysteria of the storyline (more than once a storm rumbles and thunder cracks when sex is taking place or someone succumbs to a deadly but conveniently clean disease).
Selznick, who co-wrote the script as a love letter to the just recently divorced Miss Jones (first husband: actor Robert Walker), tinkered too much behind the scenes and interfered with the vision and style of the most creative directors working in Hollywood at this time who had a hand in orchestrating some of this vivid sex and sand opera. Vidor is the credited main man, but William Dieterle, designer William Cameron Menzies and visual stylist Josef von Sternberg also fiddled behind the scenes.
Von Sternberg famously made Marlene Dietrich an international star, moulding her to be, on screen at least, the epitome of fresh, indolent sluttishness. Selznick tried a similar tack with Jones throughout her career, but by making her an icon of wholesome, apple-pie smile Americana. With Duel the two veered off course somewhat, but there is much to be enjoyed in her crazed interpretation of a woman who is bad to the core.
A remarkable, highly stylised collection of torrid ticks, Jones snarls, pouts and demurs in equal measure. She is described as being like a cat and indeed is just as wary and nervous, jumping back against a wall when a man touches her arm. Later, she flings herself against the door of her father’s jail cell, wending her hands through the iron bars, a literally physical display of melodrama.
In melodrama there are no small gestures; why close a door when one can stomp their foot and slam it shut. Jones takes the baton here and runs full pelt with it, her eyes half closed, she flares her nostrils and swishes her hair around, tilting her head back in amateur haughtiness.
After making love, Peck serenades Jones from outside her room. She writhes in her bed, eventually stirring into a sensual dance. Jones practically dances throughout the entire film, mimicking the jerks and swirls of her mother (Losch), the wanton woman whom she dearly wishes not to be like. It’s as if her tequila slammers have been overdosed with Viagra. Jones relents and accepts that she cannot escape her destiny and that she is Lewt’s girl, highlighting the inescapable nature of fate and future that permeates the film.
Immediately after this scene, Lewt breaks in a ferociously wild stallion, which rears up and kicks its hooves, much the same as a scratching, hissing Jones did to him when they first met. “See, there ain’t nothin’ to handling’ stallions…just takes a little know how” he says, referring obliquely to Jones in the masculine, her sexuality being as potent as any man’s on the ranch.
The film’s morality is deliciously obvious, dealing with contrasts between good and bad, the black and the white of life in the west, when men were men and woman simmered in the drawing room for decades, like Gish. The only mix of emotions is, fittingly, the ‘half-breed’ Pearl (and she gets called far worse by racist Barrymore during several tirades against her) who is two sides of the same coin. She is so desperate to erase her heritage and conform to the values and behaviour of a white society that will never accept her, she dresses in virginal white for the McCanless’ BBQ, aping the dainty and delicate dancing, but is laughed at for her efforts.
Gish equates with goodness and purity, as she often did throughout her long, 75 year film career. She is presented as pale-faced in contrast to dark-skinned Pearl, wearing pastel purple and pink costumes as opposed to Pearl’s vivid greens, yellows and reds, matching the colour of the wild Texan landscape. This was a comeback of sorts for Gish, having made only a handful of films since the dawn of sound eclipsed her mighty silent movie performances. She was rewarded with her only Oscar nomination, as best supporting actress.
All of the performances are over-ripe. It’s fun to see Peck playing a not too convincing villain, Huston is bizarre as a hell-fire and damnation preacher and Marshall appears to be the only member of the cast in on the joke that this isn’t a serious film, smirking as he utters the plummiest of platitudes. Even McQueen, so often neglected in film criticism, scores a home-run as Vashti, Laura Belle’s sullen and insolent maid, who lets Pearl do her work, chatters endlessly about marrying and suggests that Lewt may have seduced her in the past.
Selznick throws all that he has at his fingertips, with hundreds of horses, cattle, mighty crowd scenes (all well handled by whomever was behind the camera at the time), three of the best colour cinematographers and even a rather unnecessary train crash and explosion. His reach inevitably extends his grasp and the film never quite catches fire, despite the full-blooded acting and storyline, the film’s epic ambition to be Selznick’s next Gone With the Wind (1939) dwarf the final product.
Noteworthy as stand alone scenes are the BBQ, made by the sure hand of a man used to handling epic moments. In one sweeping movement we take in the full chatter, dance and fun of a party, swooping up into a tree and then down in amongst the revelry. Masterful and seamlessly handled.
Another tellingly filmed moment occurs when Gish is on her deathbed and the camera pushes through the branches of a tree outside her window, making us eavesdrop on their conversation as both reveal their deep love for each other and atone for the errors of the past. In the strange scene that follows, Gish swoons longingly as she expires, stirring momentarily and seeming to dance the same way that Pearl did after Lewt seduced her.
The fully over the top finale is a fitting conclusion. Pearl scrambles through the dirt to get to Lewt, the two having mortally wounded each other. They die in each others arms and the camera pulls back from their death embrace, reducing them to mere specks of sands.