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Duel in the Sun

Director: David O. Selznick

U.S.A.| 1946. Colour. 138 min.


Dubbed ‘Lust in the Dust’ by Hollywood wags at the time of its release in 1946, this epic Western was the product of producer David O. Selznick’s mad desire to outdo his classic Civil War epic Gone with the Wind. The overwrought script, penned by Selznick himself from a novel by respected Western author Niven Busch, tells of two brothers who play Cain and Abel in rivalry for a steamy half-breed sexpot while their father broods over his crumbling 1880s Texan empire.
Taken into the care of the wealthy McCanles family, Pearl (Jennifer Jones) soon finds herself attracted to the two sons: hell-raiser Lewt (Gregory Peck) and the educated, restrained Jesse (Joseph Cotton). Since Pearl is presumed to have inherited her mother’s hot-blooded disposition, she’s tagged as a bad girl by Lewt, who quickly makes a pass at her without success. But with Jesse away on business, she and Lewt eventually become lovers.
A full-blooded tale of amour fou, Duel in the Sun has stunning passages that jostle with scenes of overripe melodrama teetering on the edge of camp. This patchiness is hardly surprising given that Selznick went through three cameramen and half-a-dozen directors (with the great King Vidor getting the credit). Despite all its production difficulties and the critical drubbing it received at the time of its release, Duel in the Sun has grown in stature over the years, with both critics and film-maker’s (including Martin Scorsese) acknowledging their admiration for the sheer power and audacity of its excesses. As Tom Milne has observed: ‘The climax, which has Peck and Jones consummating their tempestuous passion by orgasmically shooting each other to bits, has an absurdist magnificence that defies criticism.’ New 35mm print.

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