Blu-ray review: “The Duellists” (1977)

“The Duellists” (1977)

Drama

Running time: 100 minutes

Written by: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes based on “The Duel” by Joseph Conrad

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Featuring: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney and Tom Conti

Narrator: “The duellist demands satisfaction. Honour, for him, is an appetite. This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger. It is a true story and begins in the year that Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France.”

Released recently on blu-ray is master auteur Ridley Scott’s debut film, “The Duellists” (1977), a stunning lush film that brings a fairly simple plot to life with great actors and a hint at what was to come for the director whose first few films, including this one, would pave the way for a career that would always challenge the times in which they were made with memorable performances but most importantly a visual quality that few have ever been able to handle for an entire lifetime. The release of “The Duellists” is a world wide exclusive for Australasia which is welcome as it not common for our market to receive such things.

As “The Duellists” is a debut for director Scott, there are some elements you might expect to see, that is an uncomplicated story with unknown or little known actors, a kind of amateurish not found in established talents and a genre piece that fits a formula without many flourishes. With this first film Ridley Scott almost arrives a full formed auteur, you can tell while viewing the film he knows exactly what he wants even though he is working with a limited budget and a simple enough story. However what is apparent from the very beginning is that this is not your typical debut, for one it has at its centre two incredibly gifted actors who never take the easy road in Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel who both shine in a film that was not typical of its day, as well the supporting cast including Albert Finney and Tom Conti who could have been leading their own films but here play excellent character parts. We also see on location filming in some challenging conditions that may have scared a lessor director but these vistas would become hallmarks of Scott’s films, especially those that were using the geographic landscape as a character as is the case here. One of the elements that has dogged Scott is his seemingly lack of ability to really nail a complicated story with visuals first and almost everything else second, this is not a factor here as it is a road movie of sorts with a roving narrative and plot which suit him well in this case anyway.

“The Duellists” is set in 1800 at Strasbourg, obsessive duellist Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud of the French 7th Hussars, nearly kills the nephew of the city’s mayor in a sword duel. Under pressure from the mayor, Brigadier-General Treillard orders one of his staff officers, Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert of the 3rd Hussars, to put Feraud under house arrest. However, Feraud takes it as a personal insult when d’Hubert tells him he is under arrest at the house of Madame de Lionne, a prominent local lady. Upon reaching his quarters, Feraud challenges d’Hubert to a duel. The result is inconclusive; d’Hubert slashes Feraud’s forearm but he is attacked by Feraud’s mistress before he can finish him off. As a result of the fight, the General dismisses d’Hubert from his staff and returns him to active duty with his regiment. Of course from here they duel throughout he movie in different areas, with their rivalry becoming the heart of the movie.

Whilst this was Scott’s first narrative film working with many collaborators he was an experienced director, having made a career and setting up a company producing adverts for major corporations, the most famous is arguably the Apple advert he directed that was a riff on George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ (1948) as well as the Michael Radford film that would follow in 1984. It is obvious that with this first film that Scott knows exactly what he wants and how to get it, it can be no coincident that Frank Tidy the cinematographer was new to the feature film environment as well, but gives the director exactly what he wanted, a palette that is crystal clear in the dark or light and helps set Scotts signature look that he would crystallise in his next feature “Alien” (1979) with another debut cinematographer Derek Vanlint. It has been long known Scott wanted to emulate Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1974) which used natural lighting to give a realness and authenticity and to a degree he succeeds in making this a moody melodrama with action movie tendencies.

“The Duellists” has long been a forgotten Ridley Scott film, written off because of the impact he would make with the aforementioned “Alien” as well as his third feature the incomparable “Blade Runner” (1982). But now with the advent of DVD and now thankfully blu-ray it is time for this film to take its place amongst Scott’s very best, especially in regard to some of his minor works and his seemingly inability to stop revising the ‘Alien’ franchise.

As this is a Ridley Scott film it can be easy to forget about the actors, I wonder what it took to get two American actors who had remarkable pedigree to go to France and make a movie with a first time untested director with many scenes filmed in the outdoors with some gruelling action scenes. Whatever got them in this film it was a boon to the movie with two physically gifted actors who you can tell relish their roles as well as facing off against each other, they both have something to prove and not only stands out in their oeuvres but Scotts as well.

Video

Sourced from Paramount Picture, this 1080p 1.78:1 presentation of “The Duellists” offers a crisp image throughout. However, it would appear that at some point, those behind the HD restoration have enhanced the brightness during specific scenes as I noticed that some digital noise was present in black areas of the screen. There’s a nice ambient quality to the many interiors scenes, which are lit via candles or lamps, while natural colours show up beautifully during outdoor sequences.

Audio

Sound is very rich in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, which is evident from the menu screen. It’s an immersive track that accentuates Howard Black’s score and excellently accentuates the dialogue’s eloquent use of language. English subtitles included.

Special Features

  • Audio commentary with director Ridley Scott
  • Audio commentary & Isolated Score with composer Howard Blake
  • Interview with actor Keith Carradine
  • Duelling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds interview
  • Photo and Poster Gallery
  • Limited Edition slipcase on the first 1000 copies

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