Friday, February 27, 2015

THE DUELLISTS (1977) - Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott's The Duellists is, without a doubt, the most handsomely mounted first feature I've seen. Scott has everything a young director could hope for his first time out. A-List '70s actors (Keitel, Carradine), a pro cinematographer, gorgeous French countryside locations, the best sets and costumes money could by. "Lush" is a word that easily comes to mind. Also, "silver spoon." Though The Duellists is pretty fantastic, it's hard not to take those advantages into account. It's definitely better than Kubrick's first flick, but to take one look at the lighting and framing in the shot below is to know that it's wholly indebted to Kubrick's tenth (Barry Lyndon).

Scott definitely came to this filmed fencing match fully prepared and, visually speaking, fully formed. You can tell that he'd been working in commercials for years prior. It's not hard to see the leap from this to his next two classic films, Alien and Blade Runner, despite the vastly different genres. Though not quite as groundbreaking as those films, The Duellists is definitely a visual feast. The source material is solid (a Joseph Conrad short story). My only two quibbles come in casting and tone. Western stalwart Keith Carradine is a little tough to buy as a Frenchman, not to mention Brooklyn born Keitel who doesn't even try to shirk the accent. It's not as off-putting as his Judas in Last Temptation (he who betrays Christ while sounding like a Canarsie butcher), but it still had me chuckling here and there when I probably should not have been.

Which brings me to my other tiny beef with The Duellists...all of Scott's movies, in fact. As a director, the man is generally humorless. He could use some lightening up now and then. The number of times Carradine and Keitel's characters "just so happen" to coincidentally cross paths on the battlefield and across large swaths of time eventually reaches a degree that is inherently comical, yet Scott's tone is all poker face. I'm pretty sure Conrad's story wasn't a laugh-a-minute, but that doesn't mean Scott's film of same can't give us the occasional blackly comic wink or nod. Comedy's never been Ridley's bag. Just watch Matchstick Men, and you'll see what I mean. Actually, just watch the end dinner table scene in Hannibal again where a drugged Ray Liotta sups on pieces of his own brain. Ridley can do the funny but only when there's something horrific on the other side of his plate.

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