King Vidor, American (Duel in the Sun – II) – Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon (1988)

  • King Vidor, American
  • Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon
  • University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
  • University of California Press, Ltd.
  • London, England
  • © 1988 by The Regents of the University of California

King Vidor’s The Big Parade, The Crowd, and Hallelujah have traditionally loomed large in histories of film art; his Our Daily Bread and The Fountainhead in histories of film politics; his Duel in the Sun in histories of film commerce. Many moviegoers find less-celebrated Vidor films among their most vivid memories—from The Champ to Ruby Gentry. Perhaps we may be forgiven for thinking that a full-length study of Vidor’s work is astonishingly overdue—a situation for which we are not entirely blameless.

Lionel Barrymore, Joseph Cotten, Lillian Gish, and Jennifer Jones in — Duel in the Sun (1946)

Duel in the Sun

While responding to Belle’s faith, Pearl can’t help responding also to Lewt’s contempt. She’s eager to prove to Lewt that she can ride and shoot, as if to be like him—a companion, a partner, not sexual. Her eagerness to prove it is childish, no doubt. But his unfair tricks not only obscure her demonstration, but throw her back into a helplessness that resexualizes her. The twist is part of the climax: she can ride (she finds his desert hideout) and she can shoot (she kills him). Pearl may look now like a feminist claiming the right to lust, just like a man, a revolutionary underclass trembling on the edge of an anti-American crusade, if only she’d read Marx—like, by the way, Polanski’s Tess (of the D’Urbervilles), with whom Pearl has blood ties, through romanticism and Hardy’s taste for melodrama (so pitiable to Henry James). As the film sends out its branches, backward and forward in time, we almost begin to wonder: is it, in some uncouth way, a classic?

Simple, almost stock, as the tale and characters of Duel in the Sun may seem, they’re developed with a careful eye for contradictions. If any event resolves an issue, it does so only to open up another, related one. A pair of scenes may clarify the ways in which the film provokes psychological issues that, in a melodramatic idiom, it doesn’t “discuss.”

The ball scene – Jennifer Jones – Gregory Peck

When Pearl promises her condemned father that she’ll learn to be a lady with Belle, the fervor with which she does so has an intensity that may be natural (he’s about to die) and complicatedly Oedipal (he’s killed her mother, her unladylike side). It also suggests a volatility that might undermine her resolution. The possibilities—sincerity or volatility, natural feeling or protesting too much—foreshadow the events to come; they don’t predetermine them. This opening establishes Pearl as her parents’ daughter, and her vehemence suggests childishness, which recurs in her natural nervousness in the scene where she arrives in Paradise Flats. Jess has come to meet her, and expects, for some reason, “a little southern tot” (perhaps a vestige of Niven Busch’s novel, where she joins the family at age twelve). When he finally approaches her, she assumes it’s a sexual pickup, and insults him, although eventually his serious politeness reassures her. Pearl’s anxiety to be her father’s girl and not like her mother makes her humiliate Jess as her mother humiliated her father, a parallel reinforced by the gentlemanly styles common to Joseph Cotten and Herbert Marshall. Insofar as Jess is the least deserving target for such an attitude, it also marks her as paranoid (although it’s normal for people from tough lives to be paranoid about sweetly reasonable middle-class courtesy, which strikes them as creepy and inexplicable and therefore doubly sinister). This opening encounter is a simple situation, a trivial hiccup, hardly worthy of being called part of the plot (since what would happen happens anyway), but it creates a delicate balance. The kindly man and the spirited woman may make a fine pair, or she may prove too much for him.

Duel in The Sun Full Plate Photo Promotional Lillian Gish

In a later scene, the gentle southern Christian, Belle, worried by Pearl’s misbehavior, and slightly misunderstanding it, turns for help to an itinerant “sin-killer” (Walter Huston). Roused from sleep, Pearl appears hastily wrapped in an off-the-shoulder Indian blanket, like a statue of temptation unabashed. Belle, foolishly trusting in religion’s power to good, doesn’t see that “the sin-killer” just transposes her husband’s brutality onto the religious plane. She exposes the bewildered Pearl to this Ahab of the outback, who snakes around her, half-tempted himself, pounding his fist on tables, blustering in evangelical cadences about “a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy”. Pearl’s hasty protection of her modesty looks like outrageous provocation. The pattern of misunderstanding corresponds to her first meeting with Jess, only here their common subject is her sexuality rather than her childishness. Is this a criticism of do-gooder trustfulness in general (behind every do-gooder, a tyrant)? or of Belle’s human fallibility? Is it dramatic irony? or an accusation of puritan insidiousness? The scene reads all four ways, a characteristic of well-constructed melodrama, where finely judged excess works against everybody’s norms and intents.

Laura Bell McCanles – Lillian Gish – Duell in the Sun

The twists in these two minor scenes aren’t merely tricks. They correspond exactly to Eisenstein’s conception of the dialectic. Two ideas create a third, which is all the more forceful for being unstated. As Eisenstein quite rightly insisted, the dialectic of montage displays no sign, being the product of the mind leaping to conclusions about the connection between adjacent signs. That melodramas operate in this way has been disguised by the high-culture assumption that the cinema spectator is merely passive to what happens on the screen. But such an assumption can’t even account for suspense. For this depends on the continuous and vivid existence in the spectator’s mind of things that don’t happen. The hero’s car doesn’t swerve off the cliff as shot A suggests it might, but gets back on course in shot B. During shot A, therefore, the spectator invents what he thinks shot B will be: the deduced and signless idea A + non-B. This element is visually nonexistent but it’s a strong psychological reality; it’s the suspense we remember, and the film must quickly start another possibility, in shot B + 1, or better yet, in phase 2 of shot B. Similarly, temptation plots depend on the spectator anticipating the character doing what he hasn’t done yet, or may never do, or may do in an unforeseen manner. Hollywood’s professional skills lie in substituting possibility for prediction and ensuring that if what is foreseen actually happens, it happens in a surprising way, or after circumstances have changed around it.

Duel in the Sun — Lillian Gish 1947 Selznick Releasing

Just as Duel upfronts the conflicts within its stereotypes, so it exemplifies the old melodramatic strategy of pushing action and reaction, equal and opposite excess, to the point of paradox and irony. It doesn’t claim to offer explanations—still less the bewildering variety thereof notably flaunted by Henry James—but its structure seeks to generate a sort of brooding amazement whose challenge is more perverse, but less pretentious. It assumes that human nature works less from single, precise reasons than from balances of drives.

Gregory Peck — Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun —

In the—oh so infamous—climax, Pearl shoots Lewt as he welcomes her to his mountain hideout, and he retaliates. But when he realizes his wound is fatal, and wails her name, sounding like a spoiled boy, might he just want a mother figure to cuddle him as he dies? Or has imminent death liberated him from his egoism, so that, with everything lost, he can yield to love at last? Or could both motives apply? Simultaneously, there’s suspense as to whether (a) Lewt is only tricking Pearl again, in which case we hope she won’t expose herself by trusting him, or (b) Lewt is sincere, in which case we hope she won’t distrust him. The suspense isn’t a simple “will she/won’t she” matter. We’re torn between two contradictory hypotheses and two contradictory emotions. And when at last we’re reassured (mainly by Lewt’s sitting sideways to what would be his normal shooting position), and Pearl crawls painfully toward him, the sequence still isn’t a simple affirmation, since a new question appears: will she reach him before he dies, and what will happen when she gets to him, or his body? After his death we are no less anxious that she should die too, an attitude not exactly devoid of paradox. The film is carefully not quite clear as to what Lewt realizes before dying.

Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun – Barn scene

The finale on the mountaintop is further complicated by its parallels to the earlier, indoor, deathbed confrontation, in the older generation, between Belle and Senator McCanles. This earlier scene is itself the climax of another love story, which happens before the film opens, an apparent triangle between McCanles, Belle, and Pearl’s father, Scott Chavez. McCanles believes that, years before, Belle left him to elope with Scott Chavez. Galloping in pursuit, McCanles fell and was crippled for life. His remorseful wife returned to him, only to find the domineering ways from which she had fled compounded by bitter jealousy. But, as Belle lies dying, she assures McCanles that, though she fled, it was not to Scott, nor any other man, and, with her hair hanging as loosely and wildly as Pearl’s, she crawls the length of her bed to her husband in his wheelchair. Thus the edge of his jealousy is taken off, and their love can be almost freely declared in one of those deathbed reconciliations whose spiritual meaning isn’t merely sentimentality.

Duel in The Sun — Laura Belle McCanles – Lillian Gish

It’s fitting, in a way one almost never finds outside of art, that D. W. Griffith visited the set to watch this scene between his old Biograph players Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore—although he made Barrymore so nervous that Vidor finally had to ask him to leave. Isn’t this deathbed scene the American cinema’s last great burst of Griffithian sentiment? And doesn’t Duel in the Sun’s physical, lyrical, “pre-rational” psychology belong more to the silent cinema than the sound? The dying Belle’s struggling movement (across her bed toward her husband, paralyzed by his jealousy) anticipates Pearl’s dying movement (across the sand toward her demon lover, who is immobilized also, by his stomach wound). Vidor (who shot both sequences) reverses the movements: Belle going right to left, Pearl left to right. A transitional scene (planned by Vidor and shot by von Sternberg), also indoors and at night, occurs when Pearl, clinging in her soft nightdress to her departing lover’s leg, allows herself to be dragged pleadingly across the floor, in a gesture Vidor would no more despise than he despises Melisande’s desperate clinging to the departing Apperson in The Big Parade.

Duel in The Sun — Laura Belle McCanles — Lillian Gish

Belle expects McCanles to look at her as she dies. But, whether through shame or residual obstinacy, he cannot. It is this incomplete reconciliation that the mountaintop finale finally completes. The love/hate theme, common to both stories, suggests not only that the older generation’s tragedy is the cause of the younger people’s, but that both tragedies arise from unnecessary conflicts between regional, cultural, or racial distinctions and a male egoism that has turned overdominant, destroying the more conciliatory female principle.

Duel in The Sun — Laura Belle McCanles — Lillian Gish (Promotional photo)

Within the complex audience psychology toward the stark options of film melodrama, a certain time is often required for the spectator to think of the various possibilities, so that what an uninvolved critic construes as “flabby” cutting may, in fact, be essential if the next shot is not to intervene before subsequent alternatives (like hope-against-hope) have had time to form in the spectator’s mind. Opposite excesses can present themselves simultaneously—Pearl may be too unsuspicious or too suspicious of the dying Lewt. Thus shot A generates A + non-B (1) and A + non-B (2) although both are not only different from, but mutually exclude, each other. To overlook these “ghost” shots is to read as “sadomasochistic wallowing” what is in fact a crucial and tragic moment, love triumphing over paranoia, but only after death has obliterated egoism. In this structure of excesses, melodrama’s very abstention from individual psychologizing accommodates a play of shifting influences, balances, and repermutations. All “motivations” apart, Pearl’s ride out to kill Lewt is a tragic strophe: revenge as duty, hatred, sacrifice, suicide, all in one. Pearl becomes pure superego, the savage avenging conscience of classical Freudian theory. However, the final, forgiving embrace is a simultaneous reversal of that, like the “classical” tragic hero, whose last, greatest, power is to provoke, forgive, and accept what cannot be understood or justified.

Duel in the sun – Lewt – Bar scene

If the refined spectator allows the film’s lurid elements to provoke an alienating contempt and paralyze imaginative participation, if he lies in wait for “the texture of lived experience” or a high-density text that spells everything out, then this melodrama, like any, remains impenetrable. Duel proceeds from a naivete, not in the moral sense (it demands criticism of all its heroes), but in the sense of a generous response to a “post¬ folk” low-culture predicament.*

Duel in the Sun isn’t exactly an apple of discord story: McCanles and Belle, Lewt and Jess, were bitterly divided even before Pearl’s arrival. Her role is more passive than active, and, before the finale, her action is rather restricted. She’s unconnected with the McCanles/railroad/Texas theme, which is less a story than a spectacular, if historically momentous, episode. In itself, the Pearl-Lewt story is a modestly immodest affair, coming perilously close to eternal problems like “How far should teenage girls go when necking?” and “Should a girl go swimming without a chaperon?” Not that 1946 censorship facilitated understanding which variations on heavy petting, sexual intercourse, or rape are occurring between Pearl and Lewt. But that’s not the sole cause of the film’s pretty bad case of what dramatists call act 2 troubles. It also neglects to introduce the gunfight-and-outlaw theme, which dominates its second half, after its very sudden eruption when Lewt challenges Pearl’s “intended,” Sam Pierce, in his first vicious abuse of the Code of the West. Similarly, there’s a lack of a positive opportunity for Pearl in the McCanles family. If she’d had some specific project, as well as simply becoming “a good girl” instead of herself, the film could have integrated itself around the, characteristically Vidorian, possibility of a woman finding a role alongside a man. Whatever the confusions of the film’s genesis, the final cut has a “classical” linear progression. Its fault is that it’s too plodding, like Selznick’s script for The Paradine Case. This combination of improvisational method and too-methodical result isn’t so paradoxical. Working piecemeal and in a hurry, one tends to repeat things, so as to be sure one has said them.


If the film survives its lapses, it’s partly because the wild, fast opening and the thematic spread set an episodic pace, which the spectacle and a lively filmic style sustain. And it’s partly because of another, thoroughly theatrical, component: the appeal to the actor. This can function without any straining for “psychology”; it can be as simple as physiognomy and physique. It may follow an actor through varied roles, like their common denominator, so that the star remains our “old friend in a new guise.” In this regard, Duel is a cannily subversive old shocker: before then, Jennifer Jones had been Saint Bernadette and Gregory Peck was best known as the saintly Father Chisholm in The Keys of the Kingdom. But it’s not a matter of actor-as-star, for spectators respond to it in unknowns. It relates to terms like “personality,” “chemistry,” “the semiotics of appearance,” and “the presentation of self in everyday life.” It owes as much to the acting craft as to the camera’s supposed penetrating power, and gives Selznick’s perfectionist mania about his wife’s screen appearance every justification.

Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun

To be sure, Jennifer Jones isn’t really very Mexican; but then Bambi isn’t very like a real deer, and the Cowardly Lion wouldn’t convince a zoologist (still less an animal psychologist). The essence of Pearl Chavez is not what a documentarist might have observed, had any existed around Paradise Flats in the 1880s, but a resonant stock figure. She’s a metaphor, partly for increasingly repressed impulses, partly for other, high-chic, things, which the actress brings with her: her softly salient cheekbones, eyebrows radiant with the larger confidence of forties affluence, a fine restless mouth, and a loose-limbed yet nervous body that dominated her directors’ styles, keeping the camera in long follow shots in an era tending to tight close-ups and talking heads. Often Pearl’s face is obscured by von Sternberg’s secretive lighting, and although we see her expression partially, or by glimpses, we must often guess at her feelings by the tension of her clothes, the nervous twist of her hip, going far beyond Jane Russell’s cleavage in the hay. That Jennifer Jones’s pantherine streak is too graceful, too poised, too mature for a lumpen girl of sixteen isn’t a fault of expressiveness; it’s precisely what the film is really about—Pearl’s potential.

Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck – Duel in the Sun

Lewt is oddly served by Gregory Peck’s soft, thoughtful, handsome features, which carried the liberal gentleman’s problems of conscience so smartly through films like Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement and Nunnally Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Such “idealizing” casting can find a kind of common ground between an extreme hero and the normal spectator. While Peck’s casting as Lewt doesn’t psychoanalyze his perversity, it does sum up the character’s odd mix of sensitivity and savagery. It would not have been hard to write a scenario in which Lewt—played by some higher-strung actor, perhaps John Garfield or Robert Walker—amazed us by hysterically alternating atrocities with finer and family feelings (as in The Public Enemy, where another charming psychopath is contrasted with a sober brother, insults women, and is simultaneously condemned and indulged by his parents). But the continuous sensitivity in Peck’s screen persona is another way of fulfilling this function, and creating a continuous ostinato of sympathy in counterpoint to his escalation into self-destruction.* Lewt rejects and possesses Pearl, serenades and rapes her, all with Peck’s winning smile and kind eyes. (The suave brute was another forties emphasis: if Rhett Butler was their godfather, Britain’s James Mason was their apotheosis.)

Final scene – Duel in the Sun – Gregory Peck – Jennifer Jones

The film’s final balance is very ambiguous. For though Lewt’s insanely excessive individualism is unreservedly deplored, it is his love, not Jess’s, that Mother Nature honors with a pagan miracle. Jess’s world is the world of Pulham and Cynara—a gray, dull place. Lewt and Pearl’s dying thrust and parry is Nietzsche’s amor fati at its purest. Their yin and yang machine is as curious as Shinoda’s Double Suicide; as sharply balanced as Cocteau’s witty admiration of Pamour fou in the double death finale of L’Aigle a deux tetes (two years later), set on a grand staircase instead of a mountaintop. In Bunuel terms, Lewt and Pearl crawl through rough sand and stone, like the scorpions of L’Age d’or, and sting each other to death.

Duel in the sun – cast

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