Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mano a Mano

Way, way back in January when 2012 had barely begun, I saw an accidental double feature at the Castro. I had intended to drive over to the Smith Rafael to see their program of foreign films submitted for Oscar consideration. That Sunday, I intended to watch the Peruvian October and the Norwegian Happy, Happy entries but for reasons I cannot recall now, I went to the Castro and watched:

Sweet Smell of Success starring Burt Lancaster & Tony Curtis; directed by Alexander Mackendrick; (1957)
The Duellists starring Keith Carradine & Harvey Keitel; directed by Ridley Scott; (1977)

I've seen Sweet Smell of Success many times. I recall in the late 1980s, HBO heavily advertised the film on that channel. That was the first time I saw it; perhaps for its 30th anniversary. I recall being fascinated by Lancaster's performance - clipped speech & horn-rimmed eyeglasses. At the time, I didn't know he was doing a Walter Winchell impersonation. Today, I wonder if he was throwing in a little J. Edgar Hoover.

Sweet Smell of Success is an all-time classic and deserves whatever accolades it receives. Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker and Curtis' Sidney Falco are like two dogs sniffing each other with Hunsecker clearly the alpha male. In the interest of time, I won't go into much detail about the film.

I considered skipping the film but couldn't resist it. As I watch more films, I become aware of how great performances need a strong supporting cast to contrast against. Hunsecker's megalomania and invective needs to have a whipping boy to elevate himself and Falco's self-loathsome sycophancy provides it in spades. Lancaster received great reviews for his performance and it has caught my attention since my first viewing of Sweet Smell of Success but the more I watch, the more I appreciate Curtis' turn as Falco.


On that Sunday, I was more interested in The Duellists which has the distinction of being Ridley Scott's directorial debut as well as casting Harvey Keitel as a 19th century French Army officer. Thankfully, he did not attempt a French accent.

In The Duellists, Keitel plays Gabriel Feraud, a French military officer quick to settle disputes the old fashioned way - a duel. Running afoul of him is fellow Army officer Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine). Set during Napoleonic Wars, Feraud and d'Hubert continue their duel over the course of a decade as various obstacles prevent them from fighting to the death. D'Hubert is relatively reluctant to continue the feud but Feraud is adamant and d'Hubert is equally adamant to not back down from the challenges.

The film follows the two officers around Europe as they chance upon each other. Lacking modern day parallels, Feraud's enthusiasm for dueling is hard to fathom but seems rooted in his resentments. The only way to give voice and meaning to perceived insults is to fight to the death. More than a point of honor, Feraud's duel are a point of existence. Based on a Joseph Conrad short story which was in turn based on actual events, The Duellists captures a time and mindset which seem foreign but yet innate.

The plot is much more richly textured than as I summarized it but much of the richness is expressed in nuanced and subtle plot points and dialogue. This isn't a film with quotable dialogue or memorable scenes but through episodic visits to the two duellist, we see the accretional effects the conflicts (both the duels and the Napoleonic Wars) have on them.

Keitel shines as the almost feral Feraud while Carradine gives a more measured performance as the rational d'Hubert. Although some consider The Duellists to be Ridley Scott's best work, I am more partial to his later particular, Blade Runner.

The Duellists is a fine film in its own right but is most impressive as a debut feature. Scott was nearly 40 years old when he filmed The Duellists which likely contributed to its critical success.

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