Thursday, September 4, 2014

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)

Oh my God. Has there ever been a more oversexed, overheated, overproduced, overacted movie than Duel in the Sun? With phantasmagorical three-strip Technicolor and shouting-to-the- rafters dialogue making it look every inch the fever dream of amphetamine-addicted producer David O. Selznick, Duel in the Sun was intended to top his previous epic Gone with the Wind

Instead, the huge, grossly-expensive (almost $100-million when adjusted for inflation), two year-long production is still considered one of the most harebrained movies from Hollywood's "golden age." Director King Vidor handles Selznick's risible script with the same anvil-like touch that he would bring to The Fountainhead three years later. Vidor, by the way, was one of six directors who helmed Duel in the Sun during its lengthy inception -- or is it ejection? -- including Selznick, who, in a rare moment of lucidity, fired himself. As for the acting, there's so much ham on display that it's probably banned in Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

The tale of a young, half-breed trollop who causes havoc between two brothers and their racist father, Duel in the Sun intends to be spicy but winds up being tasteless. It would have fared better as a low-budget RKO black & white programmer as originally intended, but once Selznick got his Oscar-winning paws on the project, all bets were off. 

Warning: staring at this sun on a high-def
TV for 10 straight minutes can cause
permanent eye damage.
The movie announces its intentions to epicdom (a word I just made up) with a 10-minute instrumental prelude by Dimitri Tiomkin, which never manages to string together more than three interesting notes at a time. 

The difference between "prelude"
and "overture" is 7 minutes.
Just as it comes to a thudding end, and you're settling in for, you know, a movie, the voice of character actor Reed Hadley announces, "Ladies and gentleman, the overture to Duel in the Sun!" -- followed by three more unmemorable minutes of the Selznick Studio orchestra sawing away while Hadley describes the movie you're about to see. Show, don't tell! 

Then that's followed by the credits, and that's followed by a magniloquent prologue spoken by Orson Welles (presumably to make it sound classy) before the movie finally kicks in. I guess Selznick had to do something to make it seem as long as Gone with the Wind. (Without the music folderol, Duel in the Sun runs only a little over two hours.)

Now we know where Elvis Presley got his sneer.
If Duel in the Sun was Selznick's attempt to turn his then-mistress, Jennifer Jones, into another Vivian Leigh, he should have spent more time on his shrink's couch and less time popping bennies. Wearing dark "Injun" make-up, Jones instead resembles a drunken Emirates Airline stewardess. And rather than being sexy, as was Selznick's intentions, she's actually seriously sluttish, admitting, "I'm trash like my maw!" A moment later, upon reflection, she writhes on her bed shouting, "Trash, trash, trash, trash, trash!" Yeah, like the script, script, script, script, script!

"After we do the nasty, I'm going out to kill
a mockingbird."
Anyone familiar with the stolid Gregory Peck of To Kill a Mockingbird will be shocked by the horny, violent sociopath presented here. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock's multidimensional bad guys, Peck's Lewt McCanless is a rotter through-and-through, licking his chops like a hungry wolf eyeing a defenseless lamb -- in this case, Jennifer Jones' Pearl Chavez. As for Pearl, it winds up being one of those I-hate-you-so-much-I-love-you relationships that always work out real well in the end. (Note: that was delivered with a heavy dose of irony.) If nothing else, Peck appears to be having the time of his life playing a heel for a change, far looser in Duel in the Sun than anything else he ever made, even if he is more cartoon than human. 

Joseph Cotten is amused by Jennifer Jones'
attempt at catching flies with her mouth.

Jessie McCanles, Lewt's younger brother, hasn't got a chance with Pearl. While having pledged her love to Jessie, she's far more attracted to bad boy Lewt. Just to show you how low Pearl is, she  allows Jessie to enter her room just as Lewt is in there lighting up a post-coital smoke. (What's Apache for "bitch"?) Cotten is saddled with pity-me dialogue, but so underplays his part that he comes off better than most of his co-stars. (The only other actor in Duel in the Sun who avoids histrionics is Herbert Marshall as Pearl's father, and that's only because he's killed off after ten minutes.)

The good preacher takes a personal interest in
Pearl's salvation.
Yet despite Jones' and Peck's grandstanding, it's up to the old-timers to really pull out the stops. Walter Huston's brief appearance as a shady preacher proves that the actor knew kitsch when he saw it, and, as with his role as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw, plays it with outsized tongue in cheek. King Vidor probably didn't get the joke.

"I look like Hillary who?"
Nor did Vidor do poor Lillian Gish any favors as Lewt and Jessie's mother Laura Belle McCanles. Perhaps not having seen any Gish performance since The Birth of a Nation, Vidor appeared to have instructed her to telegraph her emotions by opening her eyes like manholes, dropping her jaw to the floor, and placing her hands on her cheeks whenever possible. Her final scene -- crawling from her bed to console her grumpy husband before dropping dead at his feet -- is perhaps the cruelest, most unfortunately-hilarious thing a legend like Gish ever had to suffer. Other than the rest of her scenes in Duel with the Sun.

Lillian Gish wipes away the
spittle from Barrymore's
line-readings.
But nobody -- no body -- overdoes it like Lionel Barrymore as Sen. Jackson McCanles, the family patriarch. Once a wonderfully subtle actor, Barrymore had by now settled comfortably into the wheelchair-bound lovable crank character that defined the latter part of his career. Under Vidor's direction, however, Barrymore crosses the divide between crank and bull undergoing a wide-awake vasectomy. Bellowing, bawling and roaring his dialogue like a one-man zoo, he officially becomes a self-parody in Duel in the Sun the way his brother John did in Playmates. But at least the latter was supposed to be a comedy.

At least you can see the (over)budget on the screen.
An impressive sequence featuring hundreds of cowboys charging down a steep hill and across the plains is still exciting (and today would be recreated with CGI). The psilocybin-like Technicolor is wildly vivid, with fiery red sunsets and gorgeous blue skies popping out of the screen, while Tiomkin's score never, and I mean never, stops. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "Oh, brother—if only the dramatics were up to the technical style!"

D.W. Griffith visits Huston and Barrymore
on the set of Duel in the Sun, and decides he got
out of pictures at the right time.
Thanks to the lurid promise of SEX SEX SEX, Duel in the Sun actually turned a financial, if not artistic, profit, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of the year. It would go down in history as being the first movie little Martin Scorsese ever saw -- such are legends made.

Love means never having to say you're
sorry after shooting each other to death.
Today, Duel in the Sun divides viewers. Scorsese, still a fan, believes it was ahead of its time. Everybody else thinks it's the work of a madman. But the best part -- the absolute icing on the cake -- follows the climax. Pearl and Lewt shoot each other a dozen or so times before dying lustily in each other's arms in the hot desert sun. Pull back, fade out... to five minutes of Exit music. Two hours and 20 minutes of non-stop score -- and I still can't remember a frigging note.

 


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