Duel in the Sun (1946)
“FURIOUS, UNFORGETTABLE LOVE!”
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck
Synopsis: Beautiful half-breed Pearl Chavez becomes the ward of her dead father’s first love and finds herself torn between her sons, one good and the other bad.
Duel in the Sun (or Lust in the Dust a sit was unkindly dubbed by critics) was supposed to be maverick producer David O. Selznick’s Western equivalent of his 1939 magnum opus, Gone with the Wind. But it fell foul of both Selznick’s Kane-like obsession with making a major movie star out of his wife Jennifer Jones, a turgid script (credited to Selznick and Oliver H. P. Garrett, but with some behind-the-scenes tinkering by Ben Hecht) which produced an original running time of a mind-blowing 26 hours, and some serious miscasting in major roles.
The story follows the loves of Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), the half-breed daughter of an Indian woman and a white father (Herbert Marshall — Mad About Music, The Razor’s Edge). After her father is hung for shooting his unfaithful wife and her lover, Pearl is sent to live with her cousins, the McCanles’, where she experiences a mixed welcome. Laura Belle (Lillian Gish — The Birth of a Nation, The Unforgiven) is a kind-hearted soul who tries her best to make Pearl happy, but her crippled husband, Senator Jackson (Lionel Barrymore — The Bells, It’s a Wonderful Life) is an outspoken racist who resents the presence of an Indian in his home. This unhappily married couple have two sons who are as unlike as two brothers can be. The thoughtful, cultured Jesse (Joseph Cotten — Shadow of a Doubt, The Abominable Dr Phibes) has hopes of a political career, while the no-good Lewt (Gregory Peck — David and Bathsheba, The Boys from Brazil) has no ambitions other than to have a good time. Both brothers show an interest in Pearl, but while she has a soft spot for Jesse, she also has a self-destructive obsession with the wastrel Lewt.
Jennifer Jones was a better actress than she shows in Duel in the Sun. Although she looks delicious with her skin dyed to give her that fiery half-breed look, she’s mostly called upon to either swoon with eyelids lowered, or project a sultry sexuality with, erm, eyelids lowered. To be fair, the part of Pearl is so poorly written that even an actress far more accomplished than Ms. Jones would struggle to make anything of it. Similarly, Joseph Cotten, who was never the most dynamic or engaging of actors, is the wrong choice to play Jesse McCanles, even though Jesse would appear to be the type of role that would be perfect for the actor. Unfortunately, Jesse is such a bland, uninteresting character that the only way any life could have been breathed into him was by the casting of an actor with more energy and drive than Cotten possessed. If that wasn’t bad enough, we have a very ordinary star in Gregory Peck called upon to play a dangerous ne’er-do-well capable of raping women and killing innocent men. We can only assume that, because Peck was still in the early years of his career, his shortcomings as an actor hadn’t yet become apparent to producers like Selznick. Or perhaps the producer’s amphetamine addiction had impaired his judgement. Whatever the reason, these seriously flawed casting decisions combined with an incredibly bad script more or less sealed the fate of Duel in the Sun. Only veteran actors Gish and Barrymore managed to bring any real class to the proceedings.
(Reviewed 4th May 2014)