Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Duellists (1977): Ridley Scott’s Most Beautiful Film

The Duellists was a revelation to me. I’d never seen it before and it’s rare that I can still discover a complete gem tucked away at the start of a major director’s career, before all the other films he’s more well-known for. In this case it’s also intriguing for being so out-of-character: Ridley Scott’s fame of course was first built on sci-fi films and this is a period piece. The Duellists is better than most of those blockbusters and makes you wonder what riches he might have brought forth if he’d done more films like it in the 80’s, if he’d explored human dramas in the real world instead of going the sci-fi route. Along with Thelma and Louise, this is probably his best film.

The Leonard Maltin Movie Guide says that the supporting players in this film (all British) are better than the two (American) leads, Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine. That’s unfair, I think. Keitel is reliably effective in nearly everything he’s in. His character is completely unlikable here - he’s an unreasonable, aggressive pain-in-the-ass, and the film puts us very much on Carradine’s side in their battle of wills - but that’s nothing to fault the actor for. And though I was never much of a Keith Carradine fan until his recent turn in the TV show Dexter - in films like Nashville and Welcome to L.A. in the 70’s his persona grated on me - here he’s perfectly serviceable. Having said that, Diana Quick as his love interest in the first half of the movie does manage to show more emotion than he does. (Whatever happened to her? She had the major role of Julia Flyte in the TV series Brideshead Revisited - I’ve been re-watching that recently and realising she was an excellent actress - but she seemed to disappear after that). And Tom Conti and Alun Armstrong, plus Albert Finney and Edward Fox in small roles near the end, all lend excellent support.

The story and characters in The Duellists are interesting and convincing. The absurd decades-long enmity between Carradine and Keitel keeps our interest throughout. (The script was by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes based on a short story by Joseph Conrad). However, the really amazing thing about the film is the way it looks. Maltin says that The Duellists is among the ‘most staggeringly beautiful of its time’ and that’s certainly true. Right at the start, you notice that the scene you’re looking at would make a wonderful painting. But then you realise the scene directly after is just as good, as is the scene after that, and the scene after that, and it just goes on and on until the end: it’s intoxicating.

Ridley Scott of course started off making good-looking TV commercials, including an ad for Hovis bread famous for its beautiful evocation of a cobble-stoned pre-war Northern English village. But the visual beauty here goes beyond mere TV ad prettiness. It comes from the way landscapes and skies and buildings are shot but also from the candle-lit interiors. (The production design was by Peter J. Hampton and the cinematography by Frank Tidy). Quite a few shots seem distinctly influenced by Vermeer paintings, and other scenes recall The Gleaners by Millet, Monet’s Haystacks or various works by Caspar David Friedrich. Scott and Tidy must surely have studied these works of art before starting out, and deliberately tried to recreate them. The darker scenes have the same rich blacks as the first two Godfather films, blacks which sadly seemed to disappear from the cinematographer’s palette after the 70's. And The Duellists, much to my surprise, bears comparison with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, another gorgeous-looking 70’s film set in 18th Century Europe. The elegance is so rich and painterly that it’s bracing. You don’t just say ‘Wow! that looks cool’ as you do with Alien or Blade Runner. You feel a little awed.

For 100 screenshots from the film, click here

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