Saturday, May 4, 2013


Caught this classic the other night. It felt strange. I had seen it as a child when it first came out and only remembered it as another Western movie, a weird Western movie, but still just another Western.

In the 1970s living in Manhattan, a lot of the downtown intellectuals regarded it as a very important film and I saw it again and understood some of the reasons why. The color, in 1946, a time of almost exclusively black and white flicks, was almost garish in ways that were more painterly in an avant garde artistic way than a Hollywood way.

But when I watched it the other night, it was like watching a brand new movie. Not one scene in the film seemed familiar. And I was almost overwhelmed with the uniqueness of it. Not just the way color was used, but by the extravagance of the entire project.

First of all the casting. It was like a who's who of competing acting styles. One of the first true movie stars, and worldwide, in silent films, Lilian Gish played the beaten down matriarch as the usual diminutive, delicate ingenue she became famous playing, only now an aging one. Her domineering, angry, belligerent husband was played by Lionel Barrymore in his great but sometimes more stage oriented style, while their two sons were played by Joseph Cotton, as the refined, forward looking, intellectual,in his usual droll style and Gregory Peck at his most beautiful as his bad boy brother, the charming but at times brutal rogue in the loosest acting style he ever employed.

And at the center of the family drama is the interloper, the "mixed breed—or in Barrymore's character's terms "half breed"—brought to live with them played by Jennifer Jones, a most unlikely choice and counter to almost every other role she ever played, heavily made up to look brown skinned, and either directed or choosing to play the role with savage and feral cunning that does not rescue her character from Peck's sexual charisma.

It's certainly the sexiest role she ever played (I remembered her best when I was a boy for playing Saint Bernadette in 1943—but like DUEL IN THE SUN, these movies were often replayed in Saturday matinees so you could get to see them after they were first released), but she was then the love object of David O. Selznick so she got the role and man did she make something of it. The whole film is over the top, operative (I meant to type "operatic" but will leave "operative" in as an example of how I continue to have to retype words my brain means but my fingers decide to say otherwise) in its plot and director King Vidor's handling of it. The ending is such a drawn out demand on our willingness to accept delayed emotional gratification that it's excruciating, which is what the scene demands actually.

In the end it's unlike any film I can think of (of course, obviously, I can't think of as many as I once could) and worth it just to watch the clash of acting styles, all done to perfection in each star's way (and even the many great character actors in it as well, from Charles Bickford to Harry Carey). If I ever forget it again, you'll know my brain's done, because I've been flashing on scenes from it for days now, and suspect and hope I will for the remainder of my days, just for the satisfying delight in its over the top go for broke attempt to be the ultimate, or maybe ultimate alternative, Western.


Anonymous said...

for my "two cents"
this is cinematic history
par excellence ...
from the producer and director all the way down
into the actors and costume designers and set makers, etc

interesting that now, in our politically and morally
"correct" times she is not an "half-breed" she is an "half-Native American".

saw this film some time in last quarter of the '50's
as one of a triple feature 6 cartoon news-of-the-day comings attractions stage show at the Atlas' Saturday 6 hours matinee

time to track it down and (like you) watch it again.

would be fun to collect ALL of the movies that everyone who had been part of THIS film hand a hand in and watch those .... again. Our culture/history IS in Hollywood Films....

including the current plethora of too busy, too noisy, thin-plotted, zombie-acted, crap that is now
our "what it is"

Anonymous said...

just found it here and about to watch it after, what?
some 50 + years since first:

what a beautiful opening ! that sounds like Orson Wells
another peerless Giant

Lally said...

Let me know what you thought when it was over.

-K- said...

I just can't get with this movie. It struck me as corny and Gregory Peck as a psycho gunman was too much of a stretch. But one thing I would really enjoy seeing him in is "Moby Dick."

But tonight on TCM I might watch "Boom Town." Old time Hollywood at its best - Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy as oil men.

Lally said...

I liked BOOM TOWN enough K, but it's pretty episodic and less believable than DUEL IN THE SUN which to me is like when Philip Guston went from abstract paintings to those oversized cartoon painting, or Picabia from those mechanical drawing type dada pieces to portraits that looked like messed up pulp fiction paperback covers. DUEL IN THE SUN has that same over simplified over the top emphasis on color and character traits and story line etc.

-K- said...

Tonight: Asphalt Jungle!

Lally said...

Oh man, that flick has so many great moments it's like a "best of noir" collection.