Sunday 8 November 2009

The Duellists (1977)

Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel
Notable to posterity chiefly for being the directorial debut of Ridley Scott, this looks good from the moment a herd of geese are driven down gorgeous rural paths so that the young herder can discover a duel. Scott had been a director of commercials, so knew well how to encapsulate a scene in a very short timeframe with setting and movement. That's a skill immediately obvious here and one that explains Ridley Scott's legendary attention to detail, something else that has been attached to this film down the years. Apparently the costumes are precisely right and so are the early nineteenth century duelling techniques.

We see this quickly, with Harvey Keitel looking very confident in his skills as a fencer. He's a French lieutenant called Gabriel Feraud and he seems utterly comfortable in and matter-of-fact about his situation, while his opponent is more than a little nervous. He has a number of ringlets in keeping with the military fashion of the time and they look somehow appropriate. He also has little trouble in dispatching his opponent, who turns out to be the mayor's nephew, though the man lives. It's partly skill but it's also partly confidence and arrogance, something that probably explains how well he wears those ringlets too. The arrogance drips off him, making him reminiscent of Kevin Kline. As we soon discover he has something of Kline's talent for lunacy too. As Kline didn't debut on the big screen until Sophie's Choice in 1982, perhaps he got some of it from Keitel's performance here.

The story has a nemesis for Feraud and that's Armand D'Hubert, a staff lieutenant whose duty it becomes to locate Feraud and inform him that he has been confined to quarters. For some reason, Feraud takes this the wrong way, perhaps because the message came while he was in the presence of a lady, and so he demands satisfaction. This first duel is a short one, ending with D'Hubert being attacked by a woman who leaves scratches down his face. Perhaps that ending is another reason why these duellists continue on, down the years, through changes of location, rank, circumstances and, frequently, weather, which highlights the timbre of the film throughout.

D'Hubert is played by Keith Carradine and while both of these leads are very talented actors they're hardly who I'd really expect to cast if I wanted to conjure up images of nineteenth century French officers. However they do a fine job, really defining their characters across the years, perhaps partly due to the fact that this is a timeless story about honour and it could really have been set anywhere or anywhen. It wouldn't be difficult to imagine this transplanted into some sort of Highlander universe where they carry out their timeless fight across centuries or millennia.

Stacy Keach's opening narration explains that 'the duellist demands satisfaction' and that 'honour, for him, is an appetite'. We see this 'eccentric kind of hunger' grow over the years, from Strasbourg in 1800 to Paris in 1816, even on the frozen steppes of Russia in 1811, where the climate is the worst enemy of all and the soldiers are freezing solid in the snow. Initially D'Hubert doesn't want anything to do with Feraud but is forced into that first duel. He wants even less to do with further ones but eventually the feud, which if it ever had any meaning has long since lost it, helps to define part of his self. There are many ways to read D'Hubert's behaviour, which would seem to run surprisingly counter to logic for such a rational man, but the closest hint comes when he's asked to define 'honour'. He comes up only with the suggestion that 'honour is indefinable, unchallengable'. Really, it's whatever it means to the person who has to interpret it.

This may be one reason why the film wasn't more of a success. It looks stunning, many tableaux looking like nothing less than paintings from the old masters. I don't know enough about classic art to suggest sources but settings like the one where Feraud sits down outside a Parisian cafe look eerily familiar. Technically it's highly accomplished across the board, though the bias is very much towards visuals rather than sound. Very able actors provide solid support, such as Tom Conti, Albert Finney and Edward Fox. Pete Postlethwaite gets a tiny part, this being only his second screen appearance. None of them really matter though, just as all the gorgeous settings and costumes and trappings don't really matter. It's all about Feraud and D'Hubert and the film would have lived or died on their portrayals.

Somehow Carradine never registered in my mind as a great actor, merely another member of the Carradine dynasty. I knew his father John much better from all the terrible genre movies he drifted into as his career fell apart, and later discovered as a talented actor in higher profile films from the decades before. Films like Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath came as something of a surprise after films like Frankenstein Island and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. I knew his half brother David, of course, initially from Kung Fu but soon from many other cult classics, from Death Race 2000 to Cannonball! to Q: The Winged Serpent.

Yet Keith keeps growing on me as I see more and more of his work. While John and David imposed recognisable and memorable character traits on their portrayals, Keith's very different acting style doesn't stick in the mind initially but grows over a body of work. So while it's hard to garnish him with acclaim for any particular film (his one Oscar was as a songwriter), he sticks in the memory as an actor and performances like those in Pretty Baby and The Long Riders stand out a little more in the wider context. Of course as he's still making movies today we'll hopefully have many more years for that body of work to grow. It's a tiny filmography compared to his far more prolific father and half brother but it's still over fifty films and growing.

Harvey Keitel would seem to have more in common with someone like David than Keith, someone else who makes a lot of movies but manages to stamp a memorable performance onto each of them. Yet while he has over a hundred credits to his name today, he wasn't as prolific in the seventies. This was only his tenth film in ten years, as he built his name slowly, most obviously in Martin Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver.

This film to many would be yet another obscure title in his long filmography that most people haven't heard of, but like most, it yields a great performance that helps solidify his name as one of the greatest and most daring actors working in the business today. You'll never be bored watching a Harvey Keitel movie and you have every possibility of being amazed. Here he plays well off Keith Carradine as the driving force of the film, underlying his character with a lot of subtle nuance while refusing to steal the film. He's obviously more of a gentleman than Feraud.

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