Friday 26 August 2016

Movie Review: Duel In The Sun (1946)

An overwrought Western romantic drama, Duel In The Sun is a barely tolerable exercise in overheated emotions. David O. Selznick's foolish attempt to create another Gone With The Wind unfortunately crosses the line into unmitigated camp.

In Texas, the wealthy Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) kills his flirtatious wife (Tilly Losch) and her lover. Before being hanged for murder, Scott arranges for his half-breed free-spirited daughter Pearl (Jennifer Jones) to live with the family of his former lover and second cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). The McCanles own a massive ranch, and while Laura Belle welcomes Pearl, her wheelchair bound patriarch husband Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) does not conceal his condescending and racist attitudes.

The two McCanles sons immediately start to vie for Pearl's attention. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is a calm and educated man, but also lacking in charisma. Lewt (Gregory Peck) is rough and rude, but also passionate and possessing a violent streak. Pearl tries to grab Jesse's attention, but it is Lewt who makes the aggressive move to start a steamy, possession-obsessed relationship, and Pearl can't resist his advances. With the approaching railway supported by Federal troops encroaching onto the McCanles property, a deep rift emerges between Jesse and the Senator, amplifying the tension.

While King Vidor is credited as the director, Duel In The Sun was a troubled production that suffered from Selznick's continuous meddling. In total up to seven directors may have had a hand in creating the film, including William Dieterle, Otto Brower, Selznick himself and none other than Josef von Sternberg, who was hired as a lighting expert to ensure Jennifer Jones always looked good.

And making Jones look good was one of Selznick's main motivations. They were in a relationship that would end in marriage, and Selznick was intent on sparing no expense to make Jones a huge star. He also wanted to top Gone With The Wind with another big-scale romance. Unfortunately, Duel In The Sun fails on all counts.

Despite a hideous makeup job that miserably fails to conceal her whiteness, Jones does look ravishing, and her wardrobe helps her convey an unconstrained sexuality. But Jones' overacting has to be seen to be believed, and in many scenes she descends into theatricality only suitable for the silent era or the amateur stage.

But much worse is a jackhammer script that invests 145 minutes on a romantic triangle featuring love, hate, sex, rape, racism, devotion and repulsion, often crammed into the same scene. An adaptation of a Niven Busch novel, the film does deserve recognition for daring to tackle some thorny issues head-on, including sexual power struggles and discrimination due to race. But the film fundamentally fails to provide any enriching societal or historical context around the romantic complications. The subplot related to the railway expansion appears in brief throwaway scenes and is soon forgotten. Instead the entirety of the movie drowns in the melodramatic emotions of Pearl as she wildly fluctuates between the breathless pursuit and evasion of Jesse and Lewt with no rhyme or reason.

While Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish show the younger cast members how its done, the stars surrounding Jones flounder just as badly as she does. Gregory Peck struggles mightily as the bad guy, the script calling on him to transform into an overtly evil man but depriving him of any depth. Joseph Cotten is so bland as Jesse that when he leaves the ranch after his dispute with the Senator, no one seems to notice.

If nothing else Duel In The Sun looks gorgeous, with plenty of sunsets, silhouettes, deep reds, blazing yellows and grand vistas to convey the harsh but wide open Texas terrain. But after a train wreck that seems to belong in another movie but here serves as an apt metaphor for the entire project, the film ends with what is probably one of Hollywood's best bad climaxes: a crawl-in-the-dust fiasco intended as dramatic but that is nothing short of hilarious in the worst possible way. For all the wrong reasons, it really is difficult to look away from the debacle that is Duel In The Sun.

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  1. Your reaction to this is about the same as mine. I found it big and blustery, and far too long for the story it wants to tell. On the positive side, I didn't dislike Jennifer Jones for being wooden in this. I still disliked her, this time for being too much the other way, but at least she wasn't boring. Melodrama is hard to pull off well, and Duel in the Sun doesn't pull it off well. Needless to say, this is not a film I will revisit.

  2. Yes, Yes and Yes! This one is surely a stinker of epic proportions. It is beautiful to look at but otherwise mindnumbing. Jones, an actress of extremely limited skill and a real testament to the power of the right connections, is beyond awful trading in her signature awkward hesitancy for flat out scenery chewing. Of her many, many bad performances this is the worst.

    I usually like Gregory Peck but if any actor ever exuded downright upright got your back goodness it was him and he is clearly at sea how to make Lute work and fails. Fortunately he and the studio learned their lesson from this and he rarely, if ever, played a totally evil character again. Lillian Gish and Barrymore are the saving graces acting wise but they aren't in this enough to save it or make it worth ever sitting through again.

  3. I had always wanted to see this, as I went to school with Niven Busch's daughter Liza. Someday I will read the novel, which I'm sure has been forgotten. Last night I watched it on YouTube. This didn't feel like a Western, but more like a South American soap. It does look great. In spite of the melodrama and the camp, it's a lot better than "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"!

  4. Dear God the overwrought scenery chewing Iin this blight to cinema! Paint Jennifer Jones brown and turn her loose as a husky voiced, sex crazed "half breed." The final scene is so bad it's hilarious. Your review is spot on.

    1. This one really is "so bad that it's a little bit good".


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