Duel in the Sun (1946)
A Pearl in the Sun
Under that heathen blanket, there's a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy - The Sinkiller
When you watch "Duel in the Sun" something immediately strikes you and that is that it feels like producer David O. Selznick was trying to make another sweeping epic to match his already outstanding "Gone With the Wind". The opening scenes are simply beautiful and that beauty continues throughout with amazing skies but there is also the detail, the hang man's noose over shadowing one scene whilst the scale of certain scenes with thousands of extras is breath taking. Visually it would be fair to say that "Duel in the Sun" gets close to the impressiveness of "Gone With the Wind". But then there are two problems and one of those is that this romantic drama of family feuding is not an epic tale and the other well let's just say certain actors over act their way through the whole of "Duel in the Sun", making it at times laughable. And in a way over acting sort of sums up "Duel in the Sun" because it is trying to be more than it really is and in by trying far too hard ends up spoiling things.
After her father is sentenced to death for killing his wife and her lover, his half-breed daughter Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones - The Towering Inferno) is sent to live with the McCanles on their ranch as at one point her father was in love with Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). But her arrival at the ranch causes tensions to boil over as not only does the wheelchair bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) dislike Pearl, but his sons Jesse (Joseph Cotten - Shadow of a Doubt) and Lewt (Gregory Peck - Spellbound) both end up being attracted to the sexy and naive Pearl.
In a strange way the basic storyline to "Duel in the Sun" is not that impressive, sexy and naive Pearl comes to live on a ranch and her presence causes various issues to boil over, from brotherly jealousy to parental favouritism. As such you can guess certain things such as whilst Jesse likes Pearl she will end up with his younger brother Lewt and at some point these two will end up coming to blows over her.
But it is all the little subplots and detail which make "Duel in the Sun" a better storyline than many which have this family feuding and romantic jealousy set up. We have the history between Pearl's father and Laura Belle McCanles which then ties into why Sen. Jackson McCanles is not only cold towards his wife Laura but dislikes half breed Pearl from the minute she shows up. You also have the back story of Sen. Jackson not wanting the rail road going through his property causing issues between him and his level headed son Jesse. Plus of course we have Jesse being a nice guy whilst his brother Lewt is arrogant, the sort of person who takes what he likes. And whilst we get all of this we also get the way Lewt treats pearl, manipulating and basically abusing her as his will takes him.
Whilst all of this is good and "Duel in the Sun" manages to deliver romance, action, trains being blown up, shoot outs, murder, bigotry and a whole lot more it still doesn't feel like an epic story. Part of the trouble is that the time scale of this story is ambiguous and so what we watch may have taken us across a few years or just a few months but because you don't know it makes it feel like it is confined and epic movies never feel confined.
As such whilst "Duel in the Sun" ends up a glorious production and between the numerous directors, there was 7 who worked on this picture, they have created something as sumptuously lavish as "Gone With the Wind" it just doesn't feel epic. But it is beautiful and visually impressive and between the impressive landscapes, large number of extras and the stunning skies it does at times take your breath away.
Now for the most the acting in "Duel in the Sun" is good, Joseph Cotten is sensitive but not weak as Jesse whilst Gregory peck is arrogant and dangerous as Lewt. And both Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish deliver dramatic but convincing performance as the boys parents, especially when it comes to which ones they individually favour. But then there is the sublimely attractive and sexy Jennifer Jones as Pearl who is in a league of her own and sadly not in a good way. Now I know that the character of Pearl is meant to be slightly naive and a sexy temptress but sadly Jones over acts in every single scene, be it looks of deviousness, wailing at a loss or crawling through the dust. I'll be honest because every second of Jones's performance is over the top it is wrong. It is for this reason that there are times you find yourself laughing at all her histrionics and overwrought ness although to be honest you certainly remember her performance.
What this all boils down to is that "Duel in the Sun" is a very good movie, it is easily above average but it just feels like it is trying too hard to be something that it isn't and that is to be epic. But it is still well worth a watch because it is visually stunning and whilst her performance is seriously over the top watching Jennifer Jones is an experience you will never forget.
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