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Duel in the Sun

King Vidor and David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946) opens with an "overture" spoken by an authoritarian narrator, who assures viewers that they are about to see a western rooted in the historic details and traditional values of the American frontier. It's a somber touch, but also largely inaccurate — nicknamed "Lust in the Dust" by critics, Duel is a dime-store paperback writ in Technicolor across a 40-foot-high screen that remains entertaining despite the torrid melodrama at its core. Jennifer Jones stars as Pearl Chavez, a half-breed girl whose Yankee father is hung for killing his unfaithful Indian wife. Orphaned and on the cusp of womanhood, Pearl is taken in by her aunt, Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish), at the Spanish Bit estate, a one-million acre sprawl on the Texas prairie. The ranch is overseen by Pearl's husband, Sen. Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), and run by the couple's two sons — the older Jesse (Joseph Cotten), a sober, educated lawyer, and the younger Lewt (Gregory Peck), a rowdy cowhand who loves horses, guns, liquor, and women. Pearl immediately falls for Jesse, drawn to his maturity and respect for her, but Lewt is the more aggressive sibling, shamelessly making sexual advances toward Pearl, sometimes cruelly teasing her, and winning her attention with his cocky arrogance and occasional generosity. However, a land-war threatens to develop on the ranch's borders when the government plans to lay a railroad through Spanish Bit — the elder McCanles orders armed men to hold fast at the barbed wire, but he's surprised when his own son Jesse takes the side of the government. McCanles gives in, but he makes it clear that Jesse can no longer stay. Pearl is heartbroken by his departure, and after it's clear Lewt will not make an honest woman of her, she becomes engaged to a cowhand — a man the jealous Lewt shoots in cold blood, forcing him also to leave Spanish Bit to stay one step ahead of the law. When Duel in the Sun premiered in 1946, Gregory Peck was just embarking on what would be a storied film career, mostly populated by the solemn, earnest characters he so capably personified with his noble screen presence and velvet baritone. Watching him as bad-boy Lewt is one of Duel's chief pleasures — despite being cast against type, he plays the scoundrel with a natural charm, all swagger and grin and twirling pistols, and he even displays his skill at horsemanship by riding alongside a stampede at full gallop and wrestling with an unbroken stallion. The always-reliable Joseph Cotten, as button-downed Jesse, doesn't get nearly as much screen-time, although his understated style makes him a perfect foil for Peck. However, it's Jennifer Jones for whom Duel is best remembered — the "lust" in this dust was all about her, and in just a few years she would marry producer Selznick (who reportedly paid $2 million just to promote this film). Her on-screen sultriness is remarkable, considering that the film never brushed up against the Hays Code, with just enough flowing skirts, cleavage, and off-the-shoulder blouses to hint at a fiery sexuality that can be sparked by any man who can penetrate her armor of emotional insecurities. It's pulp from the first reel to the last, but pulp never looked so good — Vidor's camerawork (aided by three credited cinematographers) moves from one masterful moment of framing to the next with a skill that elevates his melodrama into legendary movie magic. MGM's DVD release of Duel in the Sun features a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a source-print that is very good, although some purists will note the occasional flutter in the three-strip process, in addition to a couple of moments where a second or two of film has been lost. Audio is sharp and clear in the original mono (DD 2.0). Theatrical trailer, keep-case.

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