Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Joan Tetzel, Tilly Losch, Butterfly McQueen, Scott McKay, Otto Kruger, Sidney Blackmer
Written by: Oliver H.P. Garrett, David O. Selznick, based on a novel by Niven Busch
Directed by: King Vidor
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 146
Date: 12/31/1946

Duel in the Sun (1946)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lust in the Dust

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The following review was written back in the 1990s at some point, and has been slightly edited on the occasion of Kino Lorber's 2017 Blu-ray release of Duel in the Sun. See below for more details.

David O. Selznick's production of Gone With the Wind (1939) is well-known Hollywood lore. Lesser known is his attempt at a follow-up, the 1946 Freudian western, Duel in the Sun, which I rented after Martin Scorsese plugged it in his excellent documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1996).

I don't pretend to be a student of Freud, and I haven't quite comprehended how his theories fit into Selznick's lurid, fascinating, and ridiculous movie (nicknamed "Lust in the Dust"). I'm guessing that Joseph Cotten plays the Ego and Gregory Peck is the Id, but I have no idea who plays the Superego. Certainly not Jennifer Jones, who plays the central character of the story. After her father is hung for murder, she goes to live with friends of her father (Peck and Cotten), and their parents (Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore). Being a half-breed, she's met with much disdain. Cotten falls in love with her, thinking he can "save" her, and Peck thinks she's a nice piece of tail, something he can have fun with.

The movie shows its bravery by having Jones fall for bad guy Peck and not good guy Cotten. She's attracted to the sexy, arrogant show-off, just like many real life women are. It's an interesting psychological condition that we sensitive writer types suffered quite a lot in high school. The girl we liked and were so nice to ran off with the neanderthal football captain who hauled her along with the crook of his arm locked on her neck.

But that's a story for another time. Duel in the Sun benefits from this forbidden passion, as we see Jones and Peck sweating a lot, screaming at each other, hitting each other, and just generally being cruel to one another. These scenes throb with sexual tension and excitement. Jones tries like mad to love Cotten but can't resist Peck. In the end, Cotten marries a "respectable" woman and Peck and Jones drive each other to their deaths. The movie's other subplots, like a railroad running through Lionel Barrymore's land, are old-fashioned and unimportant compared to the sexual triangle.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Duel in the Sun is seeing Peck as a sexual dynamo. After this, he reverted to the stoic and restrained noble hero, in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) for example, and never went back. It's amazing to see him actually acting here, playing something unusual. Jones, who was Selznick's lover and personal pet project, does the best she can, but she's a bit miscast. Cotten, too, is better than what he gets. Though it's nice to see Gish and Barrymore together as a Grand Old Couple of the screen. The great Butterfly McQueen plays the same kind of role she had in Gone With the Wind and steals many of her scenes. And none other than Orson Welles provides an uncredited opening narration.

Duel in the Sun was directed by King Vidor, a much more talented and personal director than Victor Fleming was on Gone With the Wind. Vidor scored in the silent era with films like The Jack Knife Man (1920), Tol'able David (1921), The Big Parade (1925), and his masterpiece, The Crowd (1928). Though he continued working steadily, he never regained the personal vision he imbued on those films. Along with Duel in the Sun, he was resigned to making camp films like The Fountainhead (1949), War and Peace (1956), and Solomon and Sheba (1959). However, as much as he was pestered and manipulated by Selznick, Vidor ultimately gives Duel in the Sun more immediacy than Gone With the Wind ever had.

Strangely, Duel in the Sun never earned nearly as much respect as Gone With the Wind. Of course, it didn't make nearly as much money either. Gone With the Wind has always been carefully taken care of over the years, restored and remastered whenever necessary. Yet the DVD I rented of Duel in the Sun looks like it was mastered from a VHS tape. The quality is very questionable for the digital format. And Duel in the Sun has such amazing Technicolor photography that it should be seen on a big screen or on a properly mastered DVD.

The good with the bad, Duel in the Sun represents an interesting bit of film history. I think Selznick got away with more in his story than he ought to have as early as 1946. The sexual undertones in this movie are unmistakable. It wasn't until a decade later, with such films as Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952), Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957) that the subject was broached again. It's a historical footnote, but is also worth seeing.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray makes me want to re-evaluate this movie. The early Technicolor appears a bit soft in some shots, especially the ones designed to highlight Jones's beauty, but Duel in the Sun's overall use of shadows and depth of space is surprising and certainly contributes to its baser emotions. (I wonder if Welles inspired anything else on this movie other than that opening narration?) The mono soundtrack is clear and bold. (This is the "roadshow" version, including the overture.) Bonuses include an audio commentary by film historian Gaylen Studlar, interviews with Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck and Anthony Peck, a bunch of trailers for this and two other Kino Lorber releases, optional English subtitles, and a reversible disc sleeve.

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