Duel in the Sun

Deep among the lonely sun-baked hills of Texas the great and weatherbeaten stone still stands; the Comanches called it Squaw’s Head Rock. Time cannot change its impassive face nor dim the legend of the wild young lovers who found heaven and hell in the shadows of the rock. 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, the half-breed girl from down along the border, and of the laughing outlaw with whom she here kept a final rendevous, never to be seen again. And this is what the legend says: a flower, known nowhere else, grows from out of the desperate crags where Pearl vanished. Pearl who was herself a wild flower sprung from the hard clay, quick to blossom and early to die…

It’s not uncommon to come across critics and writers referring to the operatic qualities of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it applied to other spaghetti westerns, but of course Leone’s films were not really like other spaghettis anyway. Nevertheless, I don’t believe his films were the first westerns this label could legitimately be applied to. To my mind, opera is essentially melodrama set to music; roaring, all-consuming passions explored and exploited with grandeur. Yet excepting a handful of cases, cinematic melodrama tends to get brushed aside somewhat disdainfuly, as though the cranked up passions on display are paradoxically of diminished value. Duel in the Sun (1946) is full-throttle, unapologetic western melodrama, a heady Technicolor cocktail of love and hate, of guilt and desire. It is operatic in scale, mood and ambition, and I feel it must have been an influence on Leone.

The credits roll and segue into an impression of the desert bathed in a twilight glow, Dimitri Tiomkin’s otherworldly score whispers across the sand and rocks, and Orson Welles softly intones those words at the top of this piece. The allusion is towards the epic and the movie, bursting in upon a nighttime street scene, is forever striving to become an epic. There is sweep and scale and spectacle, the frequently breathtaking visuals manfully going toe to toe with a tale which crackles with the power of the emotional currents contained within. This is the story of Pearl Chavez, daughter of a dissipated Creole (Herbert Marshall) and an Indian mother (Tilly Losch). She witnesses her father’s shooting of her faithless mother, and then his subsequent execution for the crime. Before his death though, he sends her on her way to seek out the protection of Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish), his first and perhaps only real love. Laura Belle is married to the wealthy and influential Senator Mc Canles (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound bigot whose own family is hardly less dysfunctional than the setup Pearl has just left behind. The idea is to turn Pearl into a lady, a task destined to be thwarted by the girl’s own wilful and untamed nature, the Senator’s undisguised prejudice, and the competing attentions of his two sons.

Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the elder brother, educated and with a broader and more progressive outlook, the latter aspect highlighted especially by his willingness to embrace the arrival of the railroad and the consequent restrictions which will inevitably be placed on the concept of the open range. It’s a common feature in westerns to see the railroad driving back the frontier and pressing ahead with the process of civilization with every sleeper and rail laid. If Jesse can be said to be progressive in this wider, visionary sense, there’s no denying that he also suffers from what might be termed a form of moral idealism, an unfortunate tendency which, at a crucial moment, allows his judgement to be fogged by some latent prudery or sanctimony. Lewt (Gregory Peck), on the other hand, is something of a primal throwback, a reckless man of the moment, impetuous and ruled largely by his instincts and desires. He is his father’s favorite for his full-on machismo and that earthy nature which suggests a greater affinity for the vast and sprawling Spanish Bit ranch. Yet Lewt is as faithless as he is feckless, a self-obsessed man who takes his pleasures where he finds them, spoiled, entitled and lacking any kind of moral compass. He treats his brother with disdain, the world as his private playground, and Pearl as just another glittering toy within it. Pearl herself is every bit as complicated as the men who covet her; she yearns for that illusory respectability her father failed to provide but is too impassioned to ever make the necessary compromises that might attain it. Transplanted into an alien environment, she finds herself assailed on all sides – weighed down by the proprietorial expectations of Laura Belle, shamed and demeaned by the contempt of the Senator, wooed by the decency of Jesse but simultaneously overpowered by her hunger for the no-good Lewt.

Those three points of the dramatic and romantic triangle are brought to life by three well chosen performers. Cotten’s reserve and diffidence is used effectively to show a man capable of professional determination but a more faltering approach to matters of the heart. Peck’s natural confidence is concentrated and twisted into a cocksure egotism. And Jennifer Jones was afforded the opportunity to explore an extraordinarily broad range from barefoot ingenue to abused victim and finally avenging femme fatale.  Generally, it is hard to find fault with the casting of Duel in the Sun. From the decaying patrician weariness of Herbert Marshall to the unvarnished meanness of Lionel Barrymore, the characters who populate the tale neatly capture the flavor of their roles. Lillian Gish had the ability to tap into that fading delicacy that was entirely apposite for a woman whose essential gentility has been broiled by relentless exposure to a husband whose temperament is as caustic and pitiless as the Texas sun. Smaller but by no means insignificant roles are filled by Charles Bickford as the aging and tragic suitor smitten by Pearl, Walter Huston as the larger than life Sinkiller, and Harry Carey as the Senator’s old associate.

Films produced by David O Selznick tend to have a lot of the producer himself in them, his hands on approach practically guaranteeing that. Duel in the Sun saw him producing this adaptation of Niven Busch’s novel and also taking a hand in the writing alongside Oliver H P Garrett and an uncredited Ben Hecht. Somehow the man seemed to be imprisoned by his own success after Gone with the Wind and his struggles to escape and surpass the long shadows cast by that epic production dominate much of his subsequent career. Duel in the Sun has ambition stamped all over it, although it doesn’t always hit the mark. That blend of writers has Lewt appearing too one-dimensional for starters: he’s an out and out villain, self-serving, cold, abusive and murderous. Yet we have to buy into Pearl’s inability to resist him. Sure he ultimately goes too far and pays the price as a consequence, but the fact it takes so long for this to occur is something I find problematic. That said, I guess the overriding theme of the entire piece is that of being trapped by one’s nature. Pearl is in the spotlight more than anyone else, but none of the leading characters seem able to break the bonds built by their own natures either. This is perhaps the real tragedy of it all, a collection of people all fated to live out their lives damaging themselves or those around them.

The director’s reins were taken up by King Vidor, who would work with Jennifer Jones again a few years later on Ruby Gentry, and the frustration of working under Selznick apparently drove him off the set. This is one of those movies where a whole raft of people seem to have had a hand, albeit uncredited, in getting it to the screen. Aside from Vidor, Josef von Sternberg, William Dieterle, and Selznick himself, to name just a few, worked on the film. Even the cinematography was shared out by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes and Ray Rennahan. One might be forgiven for expecting a bit of a disjointed affair as a result of all this but the finished film remains remarkably cohesive. The scenes of the advancing railroad had me thinking of Leone and his similar setups as Sweetwater gradually takes shape in Once Upon a Time in the West. The panache of the various duels that develop as the story progresses leads me to wonder about their influence too – from the barroom confrontation between Bickford and Peck, and that poignant shot of the engagement ring, to the stylized face off between Cotten and a mounted Peck, and of course the final showdown which builds to a truly operatic finale. In among this there are numerous memorable visual flourishes too, the marshaling of the Spanish Bit riders being a good example. However, one of the standout scenes for me is the dawn meeting between Lewt and the Senator as the younger man heads off into hiding. It is shot in silhouette atop a hill with the rising sun in the centre, an almost demonic image as though the flames of the abyss itself were reaching out to reclaim these two scoundrels.

Duel in the Sun has had a number of releases in various territories over the years, with Kino in the US putting it out on Blu-ray. For the present, I’m still relying on my old UK DVD, which generally looks fine and shows off the stunning cinematography well, although there are instances of softness and a few registration problems at times. I am aware this may not be a movie that is to everybody’s taste – it is necessary to tune into those heightened and heated emotions that underpin this type of melodrama in order to appreciate it all – but it strikes me as a title that would be an excellent Blu-ray candidate for one of the boutique labels in the UK. Here’s hoping…

Ruby Gentry

Incompatibility, or the absence of harmony, is what Ruby Gentry (1952) is all about. It’s a tale of love and ambition, and the friction generated by attempting to marry those two emotional opponents. Underpinning all that is the downbeat assertion that it is futile for one to try to escape the bonds of the past, that the future has already been mapped by circumstance or one’s  forebears, or perhaps some unseen guiding hand. This fatalistic view, one approaching the idea of predestination, tilts the movie in the direction of film noir; I think it is deserving of the noir label although I do acknowledge that there are those who will claim it is debatable whether it really belongs in that nebulous category.

Dr Saul Manfred (Barney Phillips) is the man from whose  point of view the story is seen. He’s our narrator, a kind of everyman guide taking us through the varied and tangled relationships at the heart of the affair rather than one of those pompously stentorian “voices of authority” that sometimes lecture the audience at the beginning of a film noir. His is a much more thoughtful and sensitive description of events and people, a reflection of the character himself and also of the personal stake he had in its development, at least at the start. He tells of Ruby (Jennifer Jones), and it’s one of those classic parables detailing the rise and fall not only of the title  character but of all those who were part of her life, and indeed one might even say of the rise and fall of the stuffy and socially suffocating community they all inhabit. Ruby is introduced as a swampland tomboy, an impoverished temptress in tight sweaters and torn jeans, as skillful with a rifle as she is careless with the hearts she captures. Simultaneously skittish and coquettish, she has spent time fostered in the well-to-do household of local big shot Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and it’s whispered among the more mean-spirited in town that she has acquired ideas above her station. This is clear from her romance with Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), a returning jock from a patrician background and a head full of big plans. The rigid social order is disapproving and Tackman hasn’t the moral courage to rise above this, so Ruby is drawn back into the world of the recently widowed Jim Gentry. Thus a complex web of ambition and desire is spun around a set of people who all think they know what they want but have no clear idea of how to get it, or to hold onto what they do manage to grab.

King Vidor’s  direction (working from a script by Silvia Richards) is beautifully controlled, pacy and rarely extravagant yet lush in its depiction of the steamy swamp where the climactic scene is played out and also in the richly detailed interiors, especially the house occupied by Ruby and her family. He uses space well to convey mood, the joyous and liberating race along the beach and through the surf in Tackman’s car perfectly captures the early exuberance of Ruby and her love, and then the cramped room which she shares with Jim and the doctor for the failed party after her marriage encapsulates the narrow and restrictive world she finds herself in. In the creation and presentation of these varied moods Russell Harlan’s cinematography is all one could ask for and no less than one would expect from such an artist in the manipulation of light. Ultimately, the movie works as a condemnation of unfettered ambition, where each of the main characters systematically destroys everything they care for in the pursuit of the unattainable. It is this, alongside the sour judgemental snobbery of a blinkered society, which stymies the only pure feelings on show – love is either thwarted or left unfulfilled and atrophied.

Jennifer Jones as the title character does succeed in drawing in the viewer, her allure is clear from her first appearance and the reunion with Heston on the porch in the dark and by torchlight gives a foretaste of the tumultuous nature of their relationship. Her efforts to fuse her love and her hunger to climb the social ladder is apparent from early on and the slow realization that she can only achieve the latter at the expense of the former is painful to see but convincingly portrayed by Jones. In the final analysis, hers is not an attractive character, the vindictiveness (though understandable) adds coldness and her attempts time and again to net Heston detract from her somewhat.

That latter aspect is amplified when it comes to the marriage to Malden’s besotted millionaire. His motives are the most straightforward and honest of the lead trio and he consequently earns a good deal of sympathy. There is a terrifically affecting moment when he catches his wife out in a foolish betrayal and you can see not only his world crumbling before his eyes but his assessment of himself as a man undergoing a reevaluation as he gazes in frank despondence into the mirror behind the bar of the country club. Heston simply oozes machismo, that powerful screen presence clear from even this relatively early stage in his career. For all the swaggering bravado though his Boake Tackman is a moral coward, a “back-door man” hiding behind his family’s position and reputation. Also deserving of mention is some fine work from Tom Tully, Barney Phillips and, in a disturbingly fanatical turn as the scripture-quoting brother, James Anderson.

Ruby Gentry has had a Blu-ray release in the US from Kino and there are a range of DVDs out there as well. I still have my old UK disc put out by Fremantle many years ago and it presents the movie most satisfactorily, although there are no supplements whatsoever offered. The movie has a strong emotional hook and Vidor’s assured direction, as well as Harlan’s cinematography and Heinz Roemheld’s score, combines effectively with some excellent performances. This may not be a picture you come away from with a particularly positive glow but it does have some depth and the final image, and message, may not be quite as downbeat as it first appears.

Man Without a Star

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When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.

Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused – he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.

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I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.

As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones – no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period.