Friday, February 8, 2013

The Duellists Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel star in Ridley Scott’s first feature-length motion picture, The Duellists. Two officers in Napoleon’s army violently confront each other in a series of duels. The duels begin as a reaction to a minor incident and escalate into a consuming passion that rules the lives of both men for a period of 30 years. Based on Joseph Conrad’s story, The Duellists explores the themes of obsession, honor and violence. Awarded “Best Debut Film” at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, this visually stunning film weaves a compelling story through to an unexpected conclusion.

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Being a fan of Ridley Scott, I'd heard about his first feature length film about a pair of duellists but had never seen it.  Which is a shame because it not only won Best First Work Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977, but it's become a cult classic that's only gotten even more talked about as the years have gone by.  The movie was also an early success for stars Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine who played the French officers who spend around a decade fighting each other.

The movie starts in Strasbourg in 1800 as it should...with a duel.  Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) just about kills the nephew of the city's mayor who doesn't tale kindly to that.  In fact, the mayor is so mad that he pressures Brigadier-General Treillard (Robert Stephens) to put a stop to Feraud's dueling past-time.   Treillard orders a reluctant Lieutenant Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) to deliver the news to Feraud and to put him under house arrest.  The only problem is that Feraud is among many of the city's high society and Feraud takes it as a personal insult to be arrested in front of all of them and he challenges d'Hubert to a duel.

Their duel (the first of many), ends with d'Hubert getting the better of Feraud and slashes his hand and knock him unconscious.  Six months pass and the two are stationed at different areas of the war until they meet back up in Augsburg.  Feraud has been waiting for this day and immediately challenges d'Hubert to another duel.  Unfortunately for d'Hubert, this is not a good time as he is sick and ill-prepared to match Feraud's ferocity and he is seriously injured.  After recovering, d'Hubert knows it's just a matter of time before he will have to face Feraud again so he starts taking fencing lessons to be be better prepared for their next duel.

When d'Hubert learns that he's been promoted to the rank of Captain, he's doubly happy as military protocol forbids officers of different ranks to fight each other.  Bad luck strikes again when his company is stationed in Lubeck and he learns that Feraud's company is there too and that Feraud has been promoted to Captain too.  He quickly tries to escape being seen by Feraud, but his attempt fails and once again Feraud challenges him to another duel.  That duel leads other duels (some on foot and one on horseback), and their endless feud continues for years to come even during their retirement.

The Duellists bears the stylistic fingerprints of Ridley Scott even at this early stage and the movie seems like a more action packed Barry Lyndon.  Scott and his cinematographer Frank Tidy gives the film a painterly look that combined with some very realistic costumes and sets, is very impressive considering that this was not a high budget film.  The cast is also very good in their roles, especially Keitel who's the embodiment of rage.  Feraud is basically insane since he looks for any excuse to duel anyone to feed his obsession.  Carradine is also good as the uptight and bewildered d'Hubert who through a terrible act of fate, ends up with a mortal enemy through no actions of his own.  The fact that he becomes just as obsessed about Feraud as Feraud is with him, is one of the saddest aspects of the film, but by the end of the film, he manages to recover his humanity in a way that I suspect Feraud could never understand.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer offers a very nice looking picture that brings the natural beauty of the surroundings to life.  The film has a soft and painterly look that has been retained in this new transfer with no sacrifice in detail.  There's also no evidence of overzealous use of DNR either as the film has a nice level of cinematic grain.  Colors look warm and realistic and black levels are suitably dark and solid.  Overall this is a fairly good transfer but there are some speck that pop up every once in a while.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The Duellists offers two different audio tracks on the disc - a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track.  Both of them sound pretty good but the balance seems a little off as the mix veers from too wide of a range of highs and lows in quick succession.  I had to keep a hand on my remote to keep the volume in balance because I never knew when the whispering would jump to a crescendo immediately.  Dialogue is clear thankfully, since much of their lines are delivered very quietly.  There's not much surround activity to speak of but overall it's a decent mix for a film of its age.

Extras (4 out of 5 stars)

There's not a lot of extras included here, but what is here is high quality.  Shout Factory deserves to be singled out for some praise for two new innovations to Blu-ray that I haven't seen before - a director interviewing another director featurette and a reversible cover that lets you decide which version you want to use.  Both are very cool and hopefully Shout Factory will start a new trend for Blu-ray releases.
  • Interview with Keith Carradine - This is a twenty-five minute talk with actor Keith Carradine about making the movie and it's reception and eventual cult status.  He still has fond memories of the movie and it's a shame that Harvey Keitel didn't join him to offer his thoughts.
  • Dueling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds - This featurette is my favorite one on this set and one that I wish other Blu-ray would incorporate.  Instead of just watching some EPK clips of Scott talking about the movie like usual, this time we get a discussion between peers as Ridley Scott is questioned about the movie from fellow director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Count of Monte Cristo).  There's also some cool behind the scenes footage from the filming of the movie, some Cannes footage, as well as some clips of writer Gerald Vaughan-Hughes sharing his thoughts about the movie.  I really love the idea of director's interviewing directors and I hope it continues!
  • Commentary with Director Ridley Scott - As usual, Mr. Scott offers a lot of interesting information about the making of his film and this is a commentary that film buffs and fans alike will enjoy.
  • Commentary with Composer Howard Blake - A commentary and an isolated score by composer Howard Blake where he talks about his contributions to the film.
  • Reversible Cover - This is another cool innovation that I hope others copy and that it continues. On the flip side of thle cover it has the original poster art which I prefer over the "giant head" poster that graces the front cover now.  I really hope other studios start providing this option!

Summary (4 out of 5 stars)

This was a fairly good debut film of Ridley Scott who even at this point in his career was clearly talented and able to make a low budget movie seem much bigger than it really was.  The cast are all excellent in their roles and this Blu-ray offers some nice video and audio quality that makes the movie look and sound great, especially that final shot (see above) of Freaud standing on a mountain while a shaft of sunlight pierces the clouds in front of him.  That shot alone is worth some stars!  I also liked the innovative new kind of extras Shout Factory brought to this release with the directors segment and a reversible cover.  Please support the Shout Factory and Ridley Scott and purchase this cool release!

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