Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Duellists (1977)

The Duellists is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, but the movie is all about the visuals. Ridley Scott was making his feature debut, but had actually directed a number of tv series and thousands of commercials.

The story involves two French officers in the Napoleonic Wars who become involved in a series of abortive duels over an obscure matter of honour. Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) finds himself having to constantly look over his shoulder in case Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) is around. Féraud seems to want to kill d'Hubert just for the sake of killing him; d'Hubert goes to every length to keep his distance, but Féraud keeps popping up regardless. The movie looks like an historical epic, but it feels like a Western.

I'm a big fan of Westerns that are not set in the American Old West, from No Country for Old Men to Mad Max 2, and as it turns out I am a big fan of The Duellists as well. Its appeal is almost entirely in the way that Scott uses his amazing powers as a designer and a camera operator. The Duellists looks amazing from start to finish. Almost any frame of the movie could be printed up and hung on the wall.

The cast fares less well. Keith Carradine is wooden, as he almost always is. (The only notable exception I can think of is his Wild Bill Hickock in Deadwood.) Harvey Keitel would later develop into one of the best actors os his generation, but he was not there yet. Diana Quick and Christina Raines are there as set decoration, and are unable to do much with their underwritten roles. Albert Finney is fun as Joseph Fouché, but he's only in one scene.

However, the actors all look marvellous and the authentic-seeming duels are magnificently staged. Despite the acting deficiencies, the thin script and the jarring voice-over (nicely delivered by Stacey Keach but as unnecessary as that later foisted onto Ridley Scott's third - and best - film Blade Runner) I was enthralled throughout.

Scott was never an intellectual director, despite Blade Runner, and The Duellists is not an intellectual movie. It is sensual and sensuous, exciting and entertaining, and utterly beautiful from start to finish.

I liked it.

1 comment:

  1. It's the opposite for me -- it's hard to like a film just for the appearance when there's no story, although I love Argento, so as long as there's something else going on, I can take a beautiful film without a coherent narrative. But I just didn't buy Keitel in an historical, I guess. He's too distinctly modern.