David O. Selznick, possibly the most famous producer of motion pictures of all time, had his hands in many of the most beloved Hollywood films. He worked with the likes of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Howard Hawks, and many others. He is especially famous for producing what might have been the biggest success story of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming). By all accounts and reasonings, Selznick was the real leader of this films, not the directors (the exceptions likely being Ford and Hitchcock), and a Selznick picture is easily recognizable. But after coming off of the success of Gone with the Wind, Selznick hoped that lightening might strike twice, so he turned another book set in the American south in a movie. The result was a western, Duel in the Sun (1946, dir. King Vidor).
The story involves a girl, Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), who is the daughter of a white man and an indian. After her father discovers his wife having what seems to be another of many previous affairs, he kills both her and her lover. He turns himself in and is going to be hanged. On the day of his execution he sends his daughter to Texas to live with his second cousin, Laura Belle McCanles, and her family. When Pearl arrives she is greeted by the charming Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotton), one of Laura Belle’s sons. Later on Pearl meets Lewt (Gregory Peck), the other son. A love triangle quickly builds and escalates out of control between these three.
Jesse is a smart, book-learned man, who disagrees with everything his father, a powerful rancher and senator, stands for; meanwhile, Lewt is reckless, violent, and lustful, and from the moment he first sees Pearl he wants her and is not shy about it. Sexual tension violently runs throughout this film. At the time of its release it shocked cinemagoers and critic with its, at the time, frank references and allusions to sex. The relationship between Gregory Peck’s character Lewt and Jennifer Jone’s Pearl earned the film the mocking title of “Lust in the Dust.” Of course, today the film offers nothing truly shocking to its audience except the thought of “they got away with this in the 40s?” Duel in the Sun is often regarded as a melodramatic, schlock fest, and to an extent it is, but (dare I say it?) I found it no more melodramatic than Gone with the Wind. The lavish production value, gorgeous cinematography, and wonderful staging are all highlights in this film. Never mind the solid performances across the leading cast. For instance, Gregory Peck has rarely been so menacing as he is here. As for Joseph Cotton, awhile back when I showed my wife Shadow of a Doubt (1943, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) for the first time, I made a reference to the fact that Cotton is good in just about everything: that sentiment stands true here.
The film’s script leaves something to be desired, and is really the only place it falters. Some of the bit-players come across as annoying, meanwhile some of the choices Pearl makes are out-right frustrating for the viewer. For instance, Lewt essentially forces himself upon her but ten minutes later she is fine without even the least little bit of trauma showing in her eyes. Later still she holds a gun, pointed toward Lewt, and he talks her down. It’s frustrating, and given the circumstances it never makes sense. But, despite all of that, the film is incredibly compelling and entertaining. Not once did it lose my interest despite the two-and-a-half hour running time. As I said, all of the performances are solid, and the way the characters play off of one another is compelling to watch. Duel in the Sun manages to be extremely entertaining despite its story and plotting faults.
From the moment the movie started, when the music cued and the words “prelude” appeared on the screen, all the way through the film to the exit music, I was enthralled and invested. The script needed work, it’s true, and that fault keeps it from being a truly great film, but it is still a fun movie to watch. It’s legacy of the shocking relationship between Pearl and Lewt is tame today, but uncomfortable when one remembers the time period in which this film was made. It’s a wonder the production code allowed it to be shown. Duel in the Sun is a good movie, but it’s only just a good movie. It was also the 1,200th individual movie I’ve ever seen, and I’m okay with that despite it not being great.