' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned: Duel in the Sun

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned: Duel in the Sun

This post is for the big event Ruth of the ultra-fantastic Flixchatter, who has in recent months swooned rather hard over the many fine performances of Gregory Peck, is hosting in honor of the late great's birthday - Beauty Is Forever: Happy Birthday, Mr. Gregory Peck. So make certain to drop by and check out all the other posts. Lots and lots of good stuff.

First there is a nine-and-a-half minute music Prelude. Then there is a two minute Overture with accompanying Narration ("And here, as in the story we tell, a grim fate lay waiting for the transgressor upon the laws of God and man"). Then there is The Selznick Studio emblem. Then there are the opening credits, beginning with "David O. Selznick presents his production..." just in case you had already forgotten this was a presentation of The Selznick Studio. Then there is another Narration ("For when the sun is low and the cold wind blows across the desert, there are those of Indian blood who still speak of Pearl Chavez"). And then finally, darn near 15 minutes in, the movie itself begins. Whew.

"Duel in the Sun" is routinely as gargantuan as this shot.
If you a open a film in such a fashion no one can be mistaken about your intentions - those being the intentions of David O. Selznick (how could we forget?!), the Jay Z/Kanye West of his day, a megalomaniac most famous for bringing a little somethin' called "Gone With the Wind" to the silver screen. Officially King Vidor was the director of "Duel in the Sun" (1946) but Selznick was its driving force, its producer, its co-writer, desperate for an operatic vehicle to showcase his then-wife Jennifer Jones. He succeeded in mounting and finishing the production, and more power to him. However, a grim fate lay waiting for the eventual product.

Ms. Jones is the aforementioned Pearl Chavez, who becomes an orphan when her father guns down her mother and her mother's lover in a a jealous yet controlled rage. Thus, young Pearl is squired off to live with her father's second cousin Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) on a Texas ranch lorded over by Senator McCanless (Lionel Barrymore). Immediately she finds herself thrust into a love triangle with McCanless's two sons, Jesse (Joseph Cotton) and Lewt (Gregory Peck), who, as the tradition of Cinematic Brothers stipulates, are at odds. Jesse is the Good Son, meaning he is the son neglected by the father, and Lewt is the Bad Son, meaning he is the son adored by the father.

Eventually Jesse is shunned by his father when he chooses to side with the dastardly railroad as it threatens to encroach on McCanles property. The railroad is neither here nor there for Lewt – “The best serenader this side of the Rio Grande” – who seems more interested in teasing, taunting and alternately turning on and turning off Ms. Chavez. Peck, in an earlier role, wildly and effectively plays against type, evoking that ancient line from Hamlet: That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. Peck is almost never not smiling here – often with a cigar present – but it is not a smile of assurance or pleasantries. It is lordly masochistic, and he rules over Pearl Chavez with an iron fist, making her his even if it’s against her will. He forces his way into her room and forces her into a kiss in a delirious sequence that was originally intended to be an actual rape only to be inevitably be altered by the 1946 Production Code. Even so, there is no mistaking Lewt’s sinister intentions and later he will gun down in cold blood a man who dares propose to his girl. He is not unlike another noble cinematic savior, Henry Fonda, going mean many years later in Leone’s "Once Upon A Time In The West."

The film, however, belongs to Jennifer Jones. Well, it’s intended to belong to Jennifer Jones. (It actually ends up belonging to Peck.) Instead she is woefully miscast, often cast in shots that 1.) Favor her whitened teeth so prominently they come across like an old west Light Bright and 2.) Make it appear her eyes are half-open, half-closed, like Sigourney Weaver after she’s been possessed by Zuul in “Ghostbusters.” An adjective that might leap to mind is overwrought, but overwrought is precisely what you desire in this sort of performance and Jones is less overwrought than strung out on insensible theatricality. And if Selznick’s intention really was to make this a vehicle for his wife then I think it says an awful a lot of Selznick. After all, as the brilliant film historian David Thomson has noted, “Selznick was male enough that his libido controlled much of his life.” 

Oh, the script tries to wedge a bit of psychological depth in there but Jones' entire role is to be a higher profile version of Scarlett Johansson in “The Prestige”, a pawn to be tossed back and forth between two men like an anguished rag doll. First, she likes Jesse and she hates Lewt. She still hates Lewt until he forces his way into her bedroom and then apparently she likes him. But she doesn’t completely like him, she still has eyes for Jesse even as he flees. So she agrees to marry another nearby rancher, Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford). Until Lewt guns down Sam Pierce at which point she likes Lewt again (why???). But then she doesn’t like Lewt anymore and for a brief moment it seems she may go all Alice Munro and regain possession of herself right at the end but alas……the film instead cops out and ends with her literally – literally!!! – crawling back to her man.

Has Rush Limbaugh seen this movie? I bet he’d really dig it.


Anonymous said...

Bravo, bravo!! I LOVE this review, Nick, man, I laughed so hard reading this, I'm so glad you chose this movie!!

Your description of Jones is so spot on, and yeah it's mind-boggling to see her thought process, well lack thereof, going back and forth between Lewt and Jesse. You're right though the movie ended up belonging to Peck because he seemed to have fun doing it, whilst Jones' performance is so forced. Btw, did you know that Peck was filming this back to back with The Yearling where he played a gentle farmer? It's quite a contrast to his role here, but he was convincing in both.

This was apparently the first movie that Scorsese ever saw a little boy and he's said it's one of his favorites.

Nick Prigge said...

I did not know that about Peck. That is fantastic. That is skill, to flip from one end of the spectrum to the other. Impressive.

And you know, I can see Scorsese really liking this movie despite the story flaws. It has so many huge, gorgeous shots. Not just that one I included, but that one of the thunderhead coming in across the plain too. That was beautiful.