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The Bravura Sequence

Critic and filmmaker Luc Moullet looks at the tremendous final sequences of two King Vidor films.
Luc Moullet

I’ve finally made it to the grand master of the bravura sequence, or, more specifically, of the ending bravura sequence, King Vidor.

It isn’t surprising that a producer as knowledgeable as Selznick often ran to the services of the two major champions of “slice of cake” cinema and strong sequences, Hitchcock (RebeccaSpellbound, Notorious, The Paradine Case) and Vidor (Bird of Paradise, Duel in the Sun, Light’s Diamond Jubilee, even Ruby Gentry), who, without a doubt, made the best films for Selznick.

Love Never Dies, Wild Oranges, Hallelujah, Our Daily Bread, Comrade X, Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, Ruby Gentry and their terrific denouements once made me write that Vidor was a director of film endings. No doubt I was exaggerating, but it isn’t for nothing that he hesitated for a long time between several different endings for The Crowd. I was also exaggerating because The Fountainhead is almost one sustained, bravura sequence and because there are Vidors that maintain a high density throughout, like Show People and Street Scene. In any case, the two greatest endings in the history of cinema are those of Duel in the Sun (1946) and Ruby Gentry (1952).

I’m going to dwell on these two, twin sequences. Same actress: Jennifer Jones, who is named Pearl in the first film and Ruby in the second. It is clear that Vidor got financing for Ruby from his investors based on the resemblance between Ruby and Duel, which had been a colossal success. There is a double killing in both films. The same wild landscape, reversed. The desert without water (just a pond; Duel) and, in Ruby, the desert of water, I mean the swamp, a Vidorian set par excellence (Wild Oranges, Hallelujah, Northwest Passage). This resemblance/difference extends to the financing: $526,000 for Ruby, $15 million for the super-production of Duel, a studio for the exteriors of the cheap Ruby, exteriors for the finale of the expensive Duel.

I noted in both cases the same audience reaction. These two endings are masterpieces in themselves, as if they were great eight minute short films, like Tex Avery’s King-Size Canary or Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat. But, if they are seen amputated from their very, very long preludes, they risk falling flat, of making people laugh unintentionally. Such a climax won’t be accepted out of the blue. The end of Duel is also a masterpiece because the preceding two hours and seven minutes are very uneven, sometimes very mediocre (cf. the weak, slightly paternalistic appearances of the black maid, straight out of Gone with the Wind, also produced by Selznick): it is a surprise to suddenly be confronted by work of such high quality, against all expectations. The end of Ruby is strong because it is placed, not after a work of very variable quality like Duel (whose relative mediocrity is due in part to the fact that it is a producer’s film; there were eight directors), but after a narrative that builds to a crescendo with moments of great intensity in the first part. In fact, not just the ending, but all of Ruby’s last half hour is extraordinarily powerful. It has a slow and sovereign march, rather Griffith-like. It starts rather low in order to reach the highest summit. Starting with the ordinary makes the peak of the final third easier to accept.

The two films present the particularity of calling on all the elements that constitute the art of film: cunning screenwriting and very dense accumulation of climaxes that defy plausability, the arts of cinematography, music, set design, and editing. The opposite of certain Europeans of the sound era: Breillat, Truffaut, and Pialat frequently don’t care about plastic qualities, Renoir is the greatest but shows himself to be a rather banal editor, and the Barnet of By the Deep Blue Sea works with actors and the mood above all, not on the rest. Vidor is polyvalent. He even painted, starting when he turned 50. In 1925 he set the tempo of The Big Parade with a metronome during the shoot. Let’s start with the music. So that I’m better understood, recall the plot of Duel: the beautiful mestizo Pearl (Jennifer Jones) has a passionate relationship with Lewt (Gregory Peck), who doesn’t want to be tied down. Upset, Pearl marries another man that Lewt, jealous, kills straightaway. They shoot everyone who loves Pearl and whom she loves. Hiding out in the desert following his crimes, Lewt asks for Pearl to join him. And then begins the final sequence: Pearl goes, but, vengeful, shoots Lewt. They kill each other in the desert, all the while proclaiming their love for each other. They die in each others arms. The first great filmic incarnation of the famous Eros-Thanatos. A scene that, like all of Vidor’s great scenes, makes the English howl, in rage or laughter. It’s a good sign: it’s hard to imagine Lean or Reed filming equal excesses. Not fashionable…

The skill of composer Dimitri Tiomkin (who really takes it all the way) was in starting the score, after a respite during the preceding scenes, just at the moment when Pearl goes off on her horse. As soon as the horse moves, a mournful and overblown melody is heard, stopping as soon as the animal stops. It is this “coincidence” (to which I return) that evokes most of the emotion. It is also created (I’ll leave behind the music for a moment) by the constancy of Pearl’s slow and regular—in a word, ceremonial—horseback ride. For two days, she always rides to the right, and, when she gets off her horse, she will walk, then crawl, always to the right. The consistency in the direction increases the feeling of fatality initiated by the music. Vidor is, of course, the filmmaker who most understood the importance of direction. In War and Peace, Napoleon’s army always advances to the right, until Moscow, the Russian army to the left, like on a map. It is therefore easy to recognize which group each soldier belongs to, resolving the big problem of filming battle scenes. The uniforms, often dirty and of many different colors, are not always enough for identification.

The music ends, logically, when Pearl elegantly gets off her horse, allowing the words of the two heroes, sometimes far off, to be heard clearly. Separation of sounds coming from classicism. In Ruby, it is the noise of the rifle shot that brings an end to the score.

There are certainly easy tricks in Tiomkin’s music that have become somewhat obsolete, like Pearl’s fall on the loose stones, heavily underlined by a musical fill, as was often done before 1945, or the sustained note that confirms that Pearl has just died. But the very end of the score remains very beautiful: the distant bell representing not only the burial toll (in fact, who found the lovers’ bodies, if not vultures?), but also their marriage, their definitive union. Short curtain fall as the camera widens its frame on the landscape.

Much more subtle in relationship to big Dimitri’s loud drum is the score for Ruby by Heinz Roemheld, the terrific composer for Ulmer’s Black Cat.

Ruby is less well-known than Duel, which has fascinated a diverse number of filmmakers from Scorsese to Godard(1). Ruby (Jennifer Jones), a poor girl from the swamp, and Boake (Charlton Heston) are deeply in love with each other. Boake, opportunistically, prefers to marry a boring but rich girl. Ruby takes her revenge by marrying the small town’s rich tycoon, who soon dies. Becoming the region’s master, Ruby floods Boake’s mortgaged lands.

The bravura sequence begins when they meet up in the small house of Ruby’s father and Boake refuses to clink glasses with her, bitterly referring to “when the swamp traders will change the whole world into a stinking swamp” (beautiful alliteration with six w’s and three, very well-done s’s). A strange piece of music follows, breaking with the leitmotiv played on guitar by Ruby’s brother, Jewel, a crazy mystic (one of the best examples of a main theme included entirely in the world of a film, “diegetic” as the experts would say). When everyone has left, Boake goes upstairs to Ruby’s room, and we immediately hear a short burst of music with a disquieting tone which would be welcome at a crucial moment in a film noir and that seems to imply that he wants to kill Ruby, or rape her. Yet, she doesn’t seem worried. It is the passage to the next frame, the coincidence again—the sound of the lock closing and the unexpected, sinister music stopping—that amplifies the situation.

Afterwards, with a transitional piece of music, we go from the bedroom to the swamp in which Ruby is walking, followed by Boake, the guitar playing of Jewel (who we are going to soon meet) taken over by the gunshots and sonic ambiance of the swamp, which is a real piece of music in and of itself: you’d think you were in the Amazonian jungle rather than the lowly North Carolina swamp where the film takes place. This same guitar score (often evoking the insistent pressure of desire) is heard in Fellini’s short in Extraordinary Stories, perhaps the Man from Rimini’s best work. It’s as if Fellini, Visconti (who borrowed from Hawks’ Red River for Bellissima) and Italian neo-realism drew its best inspiration from Hollywood (see the contributions of Richard Basehart, Broderick Crawford, Anthony Quinn, Anita Ekberg, Donald Sutherland, and Farley Granger).

The cinematography is exceptional in both films: the finale of Duel does a good job of capturing the white of Jennifer Jones’ eyes, big and sparkling, but also her white teeth in the scene where she talks to Lewt’s messenger. There is, moreover, though less pleasingly, the shimmer of the button on her shirt (the button theme plays an important role in Ruby). This almost unrealistic white is really noticeable in this Technicolor film, even though at the time blacks and whites were often neglected at the expense of loud colors.

Another innovation: under the pretext of the desert heat, the skin of the actress’s face is moist(2), oily, as women’s skin—men’s as well in fact—will be systematically later on in erotic pictures and movies. It is therefore important to know how to capture the reflections created by the lights and reflectors on the damp surfaces of the bodies.

And, above all, there are the movements of Pearl’s face from the shade to the sun, and vice versa. The simple passage of a face through shadows, not dramatic in itself, becomes an intense element when it is underlined by a very strong musical reprise. A banal effect in a studio, but one that is rare in exteriors.

This is even more obvious at the end of Ruby where the repeated alternation between black and white is evocative of expressionism. At the beginning of Ruby, there was already a surprising scene where, in the dark, the heroine’s lamp could light Boake’s face or leave it totally in shadow.

A few minutes before the end of the film, this alternation continues. The fire’s brightness expresses the increasing of desire, and as Boake goes up the eerie, half-lit staircase, we cut to a shot from behind revealing Ruby’s black hair, then the white of her face, suddenly lit as soon as she turns around, followed by the alternation of black and white on each of their faces, lit or not by the moon and the hanging light that Boake moves; a fantastic dance of light, signed by Russell Harlan, in which the black and white establishes a dialectic between man and woman, love and hate, outside and inside, abstinence and penetration, etc. This back and forth reaches its climax when, in the same shot, because of the lamp’s constant movement, Boake moves out of the bright light to the full, threatening dark, before we’re confronted with the opposite, the blinding white of the swamp.

The editing, closely linked to the cinematography, is minutely planned. In Duel (1945), there is an effect that is perhaps a first in American cinema. The operator, to show the intense heat of the desert, ends a shot by opening the iris all the way, turning the image a blinding white. I think that it’s an editing choice because it’s at the end of a shot and this effect was maybe done at the lab, rather than on set, at the editor’s command. Proving that it is difficult to separate what comes from the script, the cinematography and the editing. Hence the vanity of the Oscars and the Césars in awarding each category of specialists.

The other extraordinary editing effect is without a doubt the most beautiful cross dissolve in the history of cinema. Boake moves towards Ruby in the dark and, in a second, we cut to the blinding morning swamp the two heroes are walking through. The very unrealistic jungle ambience of the swamp that I already mentioned takes over from the eerie music. This audacious short cut meant, for audiences in 1953, that Ruby and Boake made love, without it being shown and, after this passionate night, are going hunting in the swamp. At the time, it was clear for everyone that when a guy moved towards a woman in the dark, in her bedroom, locking the door and shutting off the light, that they were sleeping together. The Hays Code made it so. It’s not like in 2005: none of my students understood the meaning of this figurative code because, today, it’s obligatory to show the couple in bed. Even so, the dialogue makes it clear: “What have you done to me?” Ruby’s lover asks, as he becomes an adulterer. I think that a more explicit shot had to have at least been done of them in bed because, in writing a shot list, it’s hard to imagine the kind of short cut that was used. The ellipsis is much better than respect for the lover’s chronology, brilliant even: the magnificence of the swamp, with its monkey cries, seems like an equivalent for the orgasm that wasn’t filmed. I’ve always thought that Vidor must have had his first sexual experiences in the swamps close to his native Galveston. It was a mistake to not have asked him when I interviewed him. An astonishing paradox: the love chamber is, immediately afterwards, the stinking swamp.

This studio swamp is ambiguous. Is it the Garden of Eden? Or is it, with its burnt skeletons of trees, the entryway to Hell, the mouth of the Styx? It’s a very unrealistic set, lit from beneath the water, with its the milky color, cluttered with broken, creepy lines and phallic-looking elements (see Ruby’s gun as she walks forward; the cactus in Duel). There’s also in Duel the surprising trick shot, undoubtedly by Menzies, with, in the foreground, a mountain ledge and a big, dead tree and, in the background, the dream-like sky and the cries of coyotes.

The bravura sequence is created, not only by recourse to all the elements of the art of film, but also and especially through their simultanaeity, the quasi-orgasmic coinciding of two strong, simultaneous elements (like, at the beginning of Ruby, the two lovers who are hunting and shoot the deer in the heart at the same time and the unending drive, without music, in the car on the beach and in the ocean). One could read the swamp in Ruby, with its particular whiteness, as an ocean of sperm, after all the retention of the preceding years. In the same way, several minutes earlier, the slow rising of the water drowning the earth (like in Our Daily Bread) evoked fertility. A reading that isn’t just pure, intellectual speculation: Vidor is, with Oshima, Breillat, Buñuel and Kumashiro, one of the major champions of eroticism in film.

The coinciding could also be related to the force of the contrasts: I’d give all of Bulgarian cinema for the two seconds when, during the unbelievable chase in the swamp, Ruby asks, very humanly, with a slight plebian and southern accent, “Boake, do you love me?” She doesn’t exactly say “you,” it’s more of a very short “yeu,” which adds a sense of real life to this very dream-like situation, the addition of another dimension.

Of course, the bravura sequence depends on the theme and the actions. This is clear in Duel and also in Ruby, when the couple runs through the swamp to escape the shots of the invisible killer, Jewel, Ruby’s brother. In a few seconds, Jewel shoots at his sister. Boake gets in front of her and dies. The fog lifts and reveals, perched in the trees and in a Christ-like position, Jewel, who Ruby kills five seconds later. She makes his body roll through the mud with a violent kick and, slowly, slowly, goes to take Boake’s body in her arms, cradling it for a long time. It’s stronger than Gance! There again is the coincidence, the juxtaposition between Jewel’s moralizing and mystical discourse—mocked, by the way, but which expresses the depths of the Vidorian conscience (Vidor was a devout Christian Scientist and remained marked by Christianity—see Hallelujah, The Sky Pilot, etc.)—and the surrealists’ l’amour fou. Jesus Christ + André Breton, an impossible synthesis.

Other elements increase the force of the two films. There’s the sequence of Pearl’s slow ride (Duel) on foot, then as she crawls, that confirms her animal identity: she drinks from the pond just after her horse—a scandalous shot for Americans, so touchy about hygiene. Soon after, there is a shot of an iguana and the calls of coyotes. She then has, on her horse, the unperturbed face of certain snakes, before being identified, in the image and in the dialogue, as a feline, cat or tiger. The resemblances reinforce the animalistic feeling of her desire.

What is most impressive in Duel remains the very moving, very humane shot in which, paradoxically, we don’t see a face. There’s just Pearl’s back, which crawls across the rocks. We can also see her hand. We might wonder if Jennifer Jones had a body double, but I don’t believe it. It’s Godard’s favorite shot. The scene is also rather gory: you might say it’s a ghost coming out of the ground in a graveyard. It’s when you don’t see a human being that you obtain the most humanity. And, a virtue of the dialectic, Jennifer Jones is never as beautiful (with lots of make-up as would be impossible after two days on horseback in the desert) as when her magnificence is tarnished by blood, desert sand, and swamp mud.

I could go on writing about these two bravura sequences for pages and pages. At the risk of not always being very clear, I preferred to study the two films together rather than the one and then the other since it is impossible to choose between the two sequences and separate them, as close as they are, the one coming from a reflection on the other. Ruby is an improved version of Duel, especially because Charlton Heston is a better actor than Gregory Peck. In any case, it was difficult to make it believable that the Lewt of Duel, this shameless guy, accepted dying for love to become a new Orpheus, happy to join his Eurydice. An overwhelming role for an actor. Francis Huster couldn’t solve the problem in Jacques Demy’s Parking. Heston’s sobriety, and the more refined, more nuanced writing of his character make all the difference.

It’s interesting to put the two films together for another reason. The ending of Duel is often considered to be the work of Selznick rather than Vidor. That’s probably true if you consider the film as a whole. But, as soon as a film has a lot of success, everyone tries to claim it, and some critics want to make themselves look good by discovering the true and unexpected person responsible. This is why Robert Florey pretends to have directed Monsieur Verdoux, Pauline Kael attributes the paternity of Citizen Kane to Herman Mankiewicz, and William Dieterle claims to have shot most of the end ofDuel, as his assistant confirmed to his biographer Hervé Dumont. It is very possible that Dieterle shot a lot of the shots in the final cut. But he probably just copied the scenes that Vidor already shot, adding the little stains of blood demanded by Selznick. In addition, Dieterle’s career, from 1940 to 1960, is a letdown: two honest films, Boots Malone and The Turning Point, sober and thus very different from Duel, and that’s it. The Portrait of Jennie, also with Jennifer Jones, is a complete failure. Selznick, after 1934, didn’t really produce any good films, except for the four Hitchcocks, and nothing that resembles Duel. That said, it would be very interesting if he suddenly pulled off one of the strongest scenes in the history of cinema. The end of Duel, however, recalls the energy of the ends of earlier Vidors (Hallelujah, Our Daily Bread…) and announces the fury of Ruby and The Fountainhead—which is a critique of the dictates financiers impose on artists, an implicit revenge on Selznick, who Vidor had quit by leaving the set shortly before the end of production for Duel. So, on Ruby, would Vidor have copied Dieterle? Or Selznick? It would be paradoxical at the least after their quarrel. Or the end of Duel is all Vidor’s, which I’d argue. What I’m saying, I believe, lacks any subjectivity because I don’t care at all if the end was by Vidor or Tartempion. What matters to me is that it exists. Vidor certainly contributed to the misunderstanding by criticizing Duel’s bloody excesses. But, in the city, he was a prudent, calm, thoughtful, sweet man who was afraid of being criticized, who was afraid of his own madness.

There are, however, two typical Selznick shots in Duel, very successful ones as well: the opening of the iris all the way and the studio shot with the dead tree. And Ruby no doubt owes something (including its famous cross dissolve) to the thirteen hours of work spent with Selznick’s editor, who was Jennifer Jones’ husband and the secret (and discreet) producer of Ruby. Similarly, the corny tune in Ruby was inspired by the success of Harry Lime Time, which was part of the success of The Third Man, produced by Selznick. Proving that you never make a film all alone. For example, no one knows it, but it was Jean Eustache who had the idea for the two cross dissolves in my A Girl is a Gun.

Alone, the bravura sequence is dangerous: after having read fifty papers on the end of Ruby, I had to ask my doctor to prescribe me sedatives and I left for a few days for the green of Porquerolles. And, on the bed of the clinic where I’m writing these lines, trapped like James Stewart in Rear Window, I’ve seen my tension skyrocket. Maybe, after all, it’s better to see painless and colorless films like Berthomieu’s, Gallone’s, or Roy Hill’s…

The bravura sequence is what John Ford said about it. The main thing, for a film, is that people remember a few moments. A strange thought if you consider that Ford is above all the champion of discreet, moderate works without climaxes or weaknesses (The Grapes of Wrath, Wagon Master…).

The bravura sequence is what sticks in your memory. But it is the relative weakness of the context that gives it its prestige (Duel being a typical example). That’s why I’m tempted to prefer works that are consistent throughout and less extravagant (Sunrise, The Golden Coach, Scarface, Wild River, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums). I have no specific memories of Chrysanthemums, signed by Mizoguchi, but it’s still one of cinema’s masterpieces, because of the absence of a climax or unevenness.

(1) The finale of Duel is what is seen most frequently in his Histoire(s) du cinéma and in his anthology for the Césars, probably because Godard, always fond of paradoxes, often defends producers over directors, and sees in Duel Selznick’s hand, as he admires Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives because he believes that it’s a Goldwyn film.

(2) It was Sternberg who poured buckets of water on her face.

Originally published in Positif no. 539, January 2006.

Translation by Ted Fendt.


King VidorJennifer JonesLuc MoulletTranslationsLong Reads
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