There’s always that little extra something when a nice guy plays a villain. Robert Walker as Bruno in Strangers on a Train. Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. And Gregory Peck as Smokin’ McHottie in Duel in the Sun. Wait what? Okay I’m being told his name was actually Lewt McCanles. Apparently I didn’t hear it over the sound of my own drooling.
If you’ve ever wondered how Atticus Finch might have turned out if he were born in the untamed West and raised by an absolute bastard, here’s your chance. Everything you love about Gregory Peck is still there—the slouchy sexiness, the languid, easy manner, the casual gorgeousness. Only now, he’s a ruthless killer. But there’s just enough of that old sincerity there to keep a girl hanging in with him long after she ought to hit the road.
Poor Jennifer Jones never stands a chance.
To be fair, she was doomed before the movie even started. After Teresa Wright bowed out due to what may have been the luckiest pregnancy in the history of film, Jones was (mis)cast by her lover, David O. Selznick, as “half-breed” Pearl Chavez. Breathlessly snarling from behind hundreds of layers of Coppertone, she leaves you longing for the dramatic realism of John Wayne as Genghis Khan.
After her father (Herbert Marshall) is hanged for shooting his wife and her lover, Pearl packs up her vast wardrobe of oddly form-fitting peasant dresses and goes off to live with distant relatives: the evil Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), his stoic wife Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), and their polar-opposite sons, Lewt and Jesse (Cotten at his most earnest and adorable). Almost at once, Pearl upends the whole household: the Senator hates her, Laura Belle dotes on her, Jesse wants to rescue her and Lewt just plain wants her. And he gets her so emphatically that the studio censors were sent scrambling for their scissors.
But that was the least of the offscreen woes. By the time shooting began in 1946, the already-manic Selznick, who was still married to Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene but having a very public affair with Jones, had become addicted to amphetamines—and fought so violently with everyone, they could have called the film Duel with the Son-in-Law. For starters, he blew through five directors—Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Sidney Franklin and William Cameron Menzies—and even briefly appointed himself, before King Vidor finally “won” the job. (Von Sternberg stayed on to help shoot Jones in the most flattering light for her constant close-ups.)
Legendary composer Dimitri Tiomkin also felt the producer’s speed-induced wrath. When Selznick heard Lewt and Pearl’s “love theme,” he reportedly screamed, “You don’t understand! I want real f##king music!” No slouch himself, Tiomkin is said to have shot back, “You f##k your way, I f##k my way!” before storming off the set and threatening to quit. (The score went on to become the first movie soundtrack ever cut as an album, featuring Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops—thus adding “musical director” to the long list of roles Selznick never should have tried to assume.)
When the producer bought the Niven Busch novel on which the film is based, he saw it as his next Gone With the Wind—and his ham-handed fingerprints are on every frame. Like GWTW, it’s “presented by David O. Selznick” with a lengthy musical prelude, accompanied by sweeping, gorgeous shots of the red earth of Tara—oops, I mean the red hills of Texas. This segues into a voiceover by Orson Welles that pretty much gives away the entire plot, as a heavenly choir “oohs” and “aahs” in the background. (Because having Orson as your narrator isn’t enough; you really need some backup singers.) Every moment of the film is so DRAMATIC, you get the feeling that if someone said ”Pass the salt,” it would be met with a great swell of trumpets.
Only a steady, veteran cast, rounded out by Walter Huston, Otto Kruger and Charles Bickford, keeps the film from blowing off the screen. In fact there are so many good actors, it’s almost as if every time Selznick showed a director to the door, he roped in another star from the back lot. Peck’s performance as the lethally irresistible gunslinger is especially impressive, since he had to play the saintly father in The Yearling every morning before presumably downing a lunch of rusty nails and rotgut and swaggering over to the western set in the afternoon. “I didn’t do much acting,” he later laughed. “I rode horses, necked with Jennifer, and shot poor old Charlie Bickford.” It’s hard to say what may have upset Selznick more: Peck’s sweaty sessions with Jones or his stubborn refusal to overact.
At the time, Duel in the Sun was one of the most expensive films ever made, weighing in at a bloated $6 million, in part because of the lengthy editing process: the directors and the second-unit team clocked more than 26 hours of film. (Selznick went on to spend the princely sum of $2 million on promotion.)
Shot by Technicolor genius Harold Rosson, the finished product looks gorgeous, and Jones actually garnered an Oscar nod, as did Gish. Audiences liked the film well enough for Selznick to eventually make his money back, but critics derisively dubbed it Lust in the Dust.
Before its release, the preening producer screened the movie for British writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who shot their films on paper-thin budgets and were underwhelmed by what the Hollywood mogul had done with his millions. As the closing credits thundered by after the final shoot-out, Pressburger whispered to Powell, “What a pity they didn’t shoot the screenwriter.” Who was, of course, David O. Selznick.