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DUEL IN THE SUN(director: King Vidor; screenwriters: Oliver H.P. Garrett/based on the novel by Niven Busch; cinematographer: Lee Garmes/Harold Rosson/Ray Rennahan; editors: John D. Faure/William Ziegler; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Jennifer Jones (Pearl Chavez), Joseph Cotten (Jesse McCanles), Gergory Peck (Lewt McCanles), Lionel Barrymore (Sen. McCanles), Lillian Gish (Laura Belle McCanles), Herbert Marshall (Scott Chavez), Charles Bickford (Sam Pierce), Harry Carey (Len Smoot), Sidney Blackmer (The Lover), Tilly Losch (Mrs. Chavez), Butterfly McQueen (Vashti), Walter Huston (“The Sinkiller”), Joan Tetzel (Helen Langford), Otto Kruger (Mr. Langford), Charles Dingle (Sheriff), Scott Kruger (Sid); Runtime: 144; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; Anchor Bay; 1946)
“A grand scale horse opera.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A grand scale horse opera by the producer of Gone With The Wind, David O. Selznick, who tried to make an even more extravagant epic. It became the most successful commercial Western of all time, and was acclaimed for its raw power and obsessive madness even though it received awful reviews upon its release. But the interfering producer, who brought in Hollywood’s best and then stood in their way with his constant interference, went through a number of writers as he repeatedly changed the script from Niven Busch’s novel; he also went through three cameramen. The talented King Vidor (“Solomon and Sheba”/”The Citadel”/”The Big Parade”) directed in a sultry manner, but only directed a little over half of the footage used and finally quit in disgust over Selznick’s orders of constant retakes and to further make Jennifer Jones look more sexy. The married Jones (to actor Robert Walker) was Selznick’s discovery and protégé, and a few years later she got a divorce and became Selznick’s wife. The diverse directors brought in to bring the film to a wrap were William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Joseph Von Sternberg, and several other second unit directors including even Selznick himself. But it remains looking every bit like a Vidor film. Some ripped into it with glee, calling it sarcastically ‘Lust in the Dust’ for all its overt passion. At the time, its erotic scenes incurred controversy, hassles from the Production Code and much bad press.

The plot concerns the attractive, unrefined, half-breed, Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), arriving at the despotic, embittered, bigoted and crippled cattle baron Senator McCanles’ (Lionel Barrymore) Spanish Bit ranch in Texas. The invite comes from her kindly cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish), the Senator’s long-suffering wife, who was once courted by Pearl’s dad. Pearl’s dad was hanged for killing his Indian wife and her lover. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the Senator’s older bookish lawyer son, who is cultured, gentle and nice. Lewton (Gregory Peck) is the rowdy, amoral, gun-toting, evil younger son, who takes whatever he wants. The brothers are Cain and Abel biblical figures. They soon clash over Pearl, but the more forward Lewton wins her despite Pearl saying she prefers the polite Jesse.

When the railroad wins the legal right to build through the Spanish Bit’s million-acre property, Jesse refuses to back his dad’s plan to shoot the unarmed railroad workers and is called a Judas. He’s kicked off the ranch by the Senator and flees to Austin, where he becomes a big-time lawyer with aspirations to become governor. When Pearl pushes Lewt to marry her, he rejects her because of his dad’s racist feelings. When she tries to marry older nice guy rancher foreman Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford), the possessive Lewt guns him down in cold-blood—saying no one takes his girl. He then plans to go on the lam from the law to Mexico, but when Pearl pleads to let her go with him he refuses. In the memorable climax, Pearl agrees to meet Lewt in his hideout at Squaw’s Head Rock (filmed in Arizona) and then shoots Lewt so he won’t gun down the wounded Jesse; he reconciled with his father after his mother’s death and is engaged to the railroad tycoon’s daughter (Joan Tetzel), and was shot by Lewt while visiting the ranch to see mom—not knowing she died.

Pearl and Lewt shoot it out and find true love after the orgy of violence by dying in each other’s arms. The scene was pure lustful madness and one has to love it as something that defies reason and film criticism, as something like an aphrodisiac specially suited for this lush and steamy pulp melodrama.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”