Thursday, January 7, 2010

4) Duel in the Sun (1946)

4) Duel in the Sun (1946) Dir: King Vidor (and, unofficially: Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, David O. Selznick and Josef von Sternberg) Date Released: December 1946 Date Seen: January 7, 2010 Rating: 4/5

There's something very rewarding about watching something as artificially and self-consciously constructed as Duel in the Sun succeed in spite of its many tonal inconsistencies and perplexing dalliances into camp. Duel is clearly a vanity project for producer, co-writer and even uncredited co-director (one of many) David O. Selznick. His script, un-officially co-adapted from Oliver H.P. Garrett's novel by Ben "Notorious" Hecht, has an emotional palette as sprawling as his ego. And yet, that's why it's so stunning. It's a real head-scratcher, one whose lack of sustained tonal resonance is thankfully not too off-putting but is through and through a melodrama for people that prefer emotions to overwhelm narrative logic. No wonder Almodovar loves this thing so much.

Considering that so many cooks were ushered in and out of Selznick's kitchen to make it, it's hard to say if Duel in the Sun is consistently about something. Nevertheless, there are prevailing themes, the most important being the way protagonists' form and sustain their allegiances to one another and to their ideals. The McCanles boys, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) have different priorities, the former valuing the permissive council of their father Sen. McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) while the latter decides to serve the newly founded state of Texas's needs by aiding the construction of a cross-country railroad. Their father could care less about anything but his property, though he does have a pseudo-chivalrous weakness for the duty-bound men of the Cavalry.

And then there's Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), a heroine whose frail self-image and sexual neuroses are the real star of the film. Amongst such proud men, Pearl looks about as hard as a wet sponge. She tries to fulfill her promise to her dying father (Herbert Marshall), who is executed after he murders his wife in cold blood because they didn't raise Pearl right, to leave behind her seedy past as a shiftless half-breed dancing in unseemly dens of iniquity and to live like the chaste white woman she should've been raised as.

And she fails pretty miserably.

Though Lewt makes a point of showing her that he can have her whenever and however he wants, he both rapes her and seduces her because Pearl actually likes it, or at least, she's so afraid of her burgeoning sexuality that she convinces herself that she likes it. Duel's titular shoot-out shows that while she spends most of the movie trying to get Lewt to marry her and then not to marry her and back again, she does love/hate him deeply. She wriggles like mad as she agonizingly crawls her way to him, bleeding out across the sand she's so vigorously and absent-mindedly humping in her struggle to recreate Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" with Lewt. But seriously, folks, she and the filmmakers are sincere about her passion, if nothing else. Sincere in what way is a good question but really, there's something so vitally lurid and inexplicably riveting about Pearl's writhing and overtly sexual dark romance with Lewt and the submerged passion she has for Jesse. Something weird and maybe even a little great.

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