Producer David O. Selznick was never able to equal the success of Gone With the Wind (which received the Oscar for best picture in 1939), but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
His next film, Rebecca (1940), also won the Academy Award for best picture, and his films Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945) were both nominated. With the advent of the auteur theory, Rebecca and Spellbound are remembered primarily as Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but Selznick’s power and influence in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s can’t be underestimated.
Selznick spent two years making Duel in the Sun, at an unprecedented cost of $6 million. He spent another $2 million on promotion, which was equally unheard-of at the time. (Some of the more novel advertising methods were 5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing.)
The trailer for the film proclaimed that it was “the picture of a thousand memorable moments,” and that’s true. The problem is that one memorable moment after another doesn’t necessarily add up to a single memorable film. The cinematography by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan is occasionally breathtaking, and there are a few shots that are among the best I’ve ever seen on film, but there’s nothing to anchor them.
Like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun was credited to a single director, but there were more directors who worked on the film who never received credit. King Vidor is the man who got his name in the credits, but Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.
Duel in the Sun is a pretentious, overblown mess, but it’s worth seeing at least once in your life. Of course, you have to get through the “prelude” that opens the film. The word PRELUDE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunrise, accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. As if that wasn’t enough, the prelude is followed by an overture. The word OVERTURE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunset. The narrator (an uncredited Orson Welles) gives us a taste of what we’re about to see, but it’s still 12 minutes of nothing but Tiomkin’s music and two static images. Hell of a way to start a picture.
Anyway, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything, even an insane story about a “renegade Creole squaw-man” named Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who’s hanged for murdering his lusty Indian wife and her lover. Before his execution, Mr. Chavez arranges for his half-breed daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones), to live with his second cousin and old flame Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).
The kind-hearted Laura Belle welcomes Pearl with open arms, but her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), is less charitable. “I didn’t spend thirty years on this place to turn it into no Injun reservation,” he growls.
Much of the film is a push-pull between the two McCanles sons, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the brutish Lewt (Gregory Peck, in a rare role as a villain). Pearl is never really accepted into the family, and lives in servants’ quarters. Shortly after she arrives to stay, Lewt swaggers into her room one night and forces himself on her. She kisses him back savagely at the last second, so it’s not quite rape, but the implication is still there.
There are a lot of jump cuts in Duel in the Sun. Some are necessary — like when Cotten slaps Peck across the face and then the scene cuts to a closer shot in which Peck’s cheek is scratched and blood is pouring out of his mouth — but most seem like a byproduct of sloppy filmmaking, or a big-budget epic sprawling out of control.
Lewt promises to marry Pearl, but quickly backs out. When a kindly rancher named Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) proposes to her, however, Lewt murders him. Afterward, he tells Pearl, “Anybody who was my girl is still my girl. That’s the kind of guy I am. You know … loyal.”
Duel in the Sun came to be pejoratively known as Lust in the Dust, which is a more apt title. Jennifer Jones appears in all manner of undress and compromising positions, and looks great doing it. It’s sometimes called a “Freudian” western, but I didn’t see much that was Freudian about it, except for the stunning final 10 minutes. The finale is the most overwrought and ridiculous expression of the intertwined relationship between Eros and Thanatos that I’ve ever seen.
Duel in the Sun was never a hit with critics, but it was the second biggest box office success of 1947. It ran into more censorship trouble than any film since Howard Hughes’s “roll-in-the-hay” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her enormous breasts, and at least some of the notoriety of Duel in the Sun came from the very public knowledge that Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick were both cheating on their spouses with each other.
In 1948, Selznick retired from producing films. Duel in the Sun might not be the apotheosis of his 20 year-long career in terms of quality, but it’s probably the wildest, weirdest, sexiest, and campiest movie that the chain-smoking, amphetamine-popping Lothario ever produced. And it sure is pretty to look at.