This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Duel in the Sun, directed by King Vidor (1946):
Duel in the Sun is a nuclear chain reaction that lasts for two hours and twenty-six minutes. Its most dangerous actor, Lionel Barrymore (playing Senator Jackson McCanles, who is either the most sane or insane character in the film) was born in 1878, just 13 years after the end of the Civil War.
From screen left: Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten), Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), and Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). Wheelchair bound, furious all the time, perpetually at odds with his family and the world, Jackson McCanles immediately calls out the subtext of the film: that Pearl is a “half-breed” whose very existence represents a disorder that must be righted: “Pearl, what are you doing in that get-up?” he demands. “Is that the latest fashion with them aristocratic cousins of yours?” he asks, glancing back at his wife. Then: “Or is that what they’re wearing this season in wigwams?” The way he drawls out wigwams, he might as well be spitting out poison.
The scene is staged to reveal various layers of power and desire. Pearl is in black and her “get-up” clearly marks her as the Other, a femme fatale transported from the film noir soundstage to the western soundstage. She’s the object of Jesse’s gaze, whose lust for her is so repressed that you practically wish that his brother Lewt (Gregory Peck) will jump off his horse and beat the hell out of him when he arrives just a moment or two after this scene. The patriarch, Jackson McCanles, grips the wheelchair arm like a weapon: he competes with Pearl as the film’s center of gravity. And there is Lillian Gish, aged 53 and beautiful, having once played the sort of seductress role now played by Jennifer Jones.
Off to stop the railroad men from intruding on his land, Jackson is lifted onto his white horse. He barks out orders and commands, his gloved hands almost gently around the backs of the men who carry him. The weird power of the film, its deep disturbances, come from moments like this, when King Vidor holds the camera back, keeping it very still and unobtrusive, as scenes verging on the surreal unfold in front of us. It’s akin to what Stanley Kubrick would do later, letting long takes serve as canvases on which the most disturbing and unreasoned actions were enacted. In moments like this, the tone of the film is hard to read, shifting between high melodrama, hysteria, epic tragedy and, by our standards at least, camp. For all its formal rigor, the film seems at times out of control, always ready to plunge off the cliff. It’s an exploitation film ready to happen. Although the Western genre was durable enough to last a few decades more as a box-office draw, it was so familiar by the mid-1940s that a sense of parody began to seep in through its edges, signified not by direct assaults on the genre, but rather through the juiced-up handling of over-familiar sequences (“round up the ranchers to fend off the cattlemen!”). Like a small planet flung out its orbit, Duel in the Sun is detached from the very references it calls upon to mark itself as a Western.
A big dance. Pearl becomes angry that Lewt won’t announce their engagement. Lewt becomes angry at Pearl for going and “spoiling everything” by bringing it up. They’ll soon be estranged, until they kill each other at the end of the film and die in each other’s arms. The unknown man and woman in the background are terrifying. Theirs is the judgment of voyeurs. There is something uncanny about their blurred images and the intense look of the woman and the lecherous stare of the man, as if a moment from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive had seeped back in time to its source in this image. The old couple exists in the deep, interior regions of the film. They know—they somehow know—that Lewt and Pearl will die. Perhaps the old woman—and this is the real terror here—watches us from the other side of the camera. Her eyes, maybe, are fixed straight ahead. You can turn away, but by then it’s already too late.