At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

DUEL AT DIABLO (Kino/Lorber)

By • Mar 31st, 2015 •

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A rousing if silly western, silly primarily because it takes chances (a brave thing), and some of them don’t work. I’d love to take a peek at the screenplay to determine if Sidney Poitier’s impossibly fancy duds were really indicated at that stage of pre-production, or if it were an indulgence on the part of the actor. Poitier had very recently (1963) won the Academy Award for LILIES OF THE FIELD, directed by Ralph Nelson, and so the two of them were probably in an envious position in terms of choosing material separately, and even more so together (they made a third film nine years later – THE WILBY CONSPIRACY). Poitier’s wardrobe choice seemed hokey to me even back in ’66 when I first saw the film in the theater, and it rings every bit as false today. His presence in Hollywood mainstream films was a singular and important happenstance and pre-dated Blaxploitation by a decade, so this film can in no way be grouped into that fascinating and short-lived genre, in which cool black gunmen thrived in the early West. I think it was just Poitier trying to be cool, and it didn’t feel right even if such outfits did exist in that time frame.

Ralph Nelson does not seem the right director for an action western. His skills as a former TV/actors’ director apply to more intimate stories (REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, CHARLY, A HERO AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A SANDWICH). Although the second half of the film effectively details the whittling down of a trapped cavalry troop under both gun-and-arrow fire by hostile native Americans in a most relentless and bloody way, both his coverage and his work with the cast feels uncomfortable. He has difficulty blending performance with large spatial designs. I felt similarly with his western WRATH OF GOD starring Robert Mitchum. I felt less so with his scathing indictment of the early West’s military, SOLDIER BLUE, which received a lot of attention at the time (1970) – the rare film which caused intense public debate and possibly even social change.

The casting is pretty bizarre, in keeping with the director’s chance-taking. Brit Bill Travers is Lt. Scotty McAllister, assigned to transport ammunition wagons through Apache territory, many of his men riding unbroken horses provided by Poitier who had every intention of breaking them, but not in such rushed circumstances. Also along are James Garner whose oft-stated agenda is to get his hands on the man who scalped his Indian wife (he carries the scalp around with him). Then there’s Dennis Weaver, a racist, and his wife, played by Ingmar Bergman stalwart Bibi Andersson, who’s been captured by Indians and keeps sneaking away to rejoin them for reasons unknown (until the second half of the film). She doesn’t gain our sympathies as well as she might. And then there’s John Hoyt in as somber a portrayal of a native American as I’ve ever seen. This guy must not have been a huge laugh-getter around the campfire. It’s a disparate cast, and doesn’t blend into a homogenous whole, but I credit Nelson for trying.

The music by Neal Hefti is too lilting and jolly for the film’s tone. It is very much of the time, and would have been considered more appropriate for a comedy even then. As the film progresses, the jaunty melody sobers up a little, and works better. The Art Direction by Alfred Ybarra is quite good. Ybarra designed the massive location set for John Wayne’s THE ALAMO.

If you bear with its rough edges, the story delivers the action goods in the second half. There’s only one technical inadequacy worth mentioning, not one particularly ruinous to the fun: the cinematography fluctuates between sharp images and slightly out-of-focus ones. There’s no real reason for the discrepancy – an errant soft shot will appear in a scene between several sharp ones. It doesn’t appear to be the mastering, nor is it the grain that often precedes and accompanies a dissolve. The film was shot on location, and I’m willing to surmise that one of their lenses was defective, and they didn’t discover the problem in time. A celluloid authority far more versed in the medium than I suggests that it could be a mis-thread in-camera, or possibly some detritus holding the raw stock away from the gate during exposure. As I said, it doesn’t kill the fun; it certainly is curious though.

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