There’s nothing quite so dramatic as two men staring at each other down the barrel of their guns. The entire western genre has made a cottage industry out of using this image. What follows is a completely non-scientific and entirely biased selection of the best tete a tetes from the last 50 years.
10. Kinski v. Herzog, My Best Fiend & Burden of Dreams
Anybody familiar with the history of world cinema, and German cinema specifically, knows about the epic five film fight, beginning with Aguirre, the Wrath of God and ending with Cobra Verde, that was ‘Kinski v. Herzog.’
Before their partnership Herzog was mostly a little known art-film director who was almost the most single-minded and the most aggravatingly patient and determined man that cinema has ever seen. He has also proven to be fairly controversial for his flexibility regarding the truth in his documentaries.
Kinski, for his part, proved to be one of the most intensely talented and temperamental and self-important stars on earth, known for his ability to be fired from pretty much every movie he ever worked on.
Together, they made an explosive pairing that produced films as the before-mentioned hypnotic masterpiece, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, the insanely atmospheric Nosferatu, Phantom der nacht and the masterwork Fitzcarraldo which could almost serve as an allegory for the way both men worked with one another. To get these films, though, required a massive, two decade duel of egos that was fraught with anger, distrust, derision, hostility and outright threats of violence and only came to an end because Kinski up and died.
You can get more than a little taste of the relationship from either clip above. The First, from My Best Fiend, traces the life of their relationship and explains quite succinctly why Herzog would continually subject himself to Kinski’s behavoir, while the second, Burden of Dreams focuses singularly on the making of Fitzacarraldo. From watching either movie and seeing their battle captured for all posterity, it is unclear whether either man truly triumphed, and it really can be said that the winner was the audience. Whoever prevailed, though, the ends clearly justify the means.
9. Everybody v. Everybody Else, Reservoir Dogs
Whenever I think of a duel the first thing that comes to mind is two cowboys in some nameless western town, one in a black hat, the other in white, standing each other down. A million westerns were made of this exact scenaroio and it is so pervase that not only is the rest of this list fraught with exactly these kinds of duels, but so is all cinema history. After all, where else can you find such perfect tension and drama than between two men trying to kill each other?
Well, the answer to that question, is found in Reservoir Dogs. If you think that duels a deux are a bit dull and been done, then how about the massive four-man Mexican-standoff gang-bang that closes out Quentin Tarantino’s debut film?
Unlike many of the other’s on the list this scene has hardly any buildup or loads of tension and is therefore probably the most realistic – when guy’s with guns want to kill one another, they usually don’t wait around and look at each other for five minutes, they just get on with – but it’s still interesting and truly a fitting end to a heist movie where all the players eventually turned on each other.
Still, the scene leaves some people asking, Who killed nice guy Eddie?
8. Dueling Banjos, Deliverance
The name says it all with this one. City folk and inbred country folk are normally cinematic oil and water, and this movie doesn’t try to argue otherwise. Instead, from the very get go it demonstrates how at odds they are when Ronnie Cox’s Drew goes head-to-head with a local boy playing the above tune. At the end of the playing Cox is bested and knows it and offers to shake the boy’s hand, but is refused. It’s hardly a deadly ending, by any means, but by then the deadly ending is set in motion.
Ned Beatty’s career was not hurt in the least by this movie and he did just fine for himself, but whenever I hear a pig squeal, I think about this movie.
7. Dennis Weaver v. The Truck, Duel
An exercise in truth in advertising here, but if you don’t mind a title giving away the entire plot of the movie you’ll have a pretty good time.
Duel is one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest efforts, a TV movie based on a Richard Matheson (he of I am Legend fame) short-story, and though it was made before he transitioned to true feature films it carries many of the hallmarks we would come to associate with his later work.
In this one, Dennis Weaver plays another of the milquetoasts he specialized in, and spends the balance of the movie being terrorized by a by a semi-truck and it’s unseen driver, all because he dared to pass it when it was going too slow. Not a whole lot of subtext or depth, and it being a Spielberg movie, you’ll never doubt who wins this one. Still, it is fraught with tension and makes for a rather exciting 90 minutes.
6. The Battle of the Minds, Princess Bride
If you think about the duels in the Princess Bride then first scene that might come to mind is the confrontation atop the cliff by Wesley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), or perhaps it is the comical showdown between Wesley and Fezzik (Andre the Giant), where Wesley manages to get the drop on the big man, or maybe even Wesley’s later encounter with Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon), or even the showdown between Inigo and Count Rugen in a piece of decades-old revenge.
For me, though, the true standout of this movie is the Battle of Wits that pits Wesley against the treacherous Vizzini (Wallace Shawn). Taking place entirely while sitting at a rock and revolving around a poisoned cup of wine, Vizzini seems to get the upper hand and best his opponent through a cunning mix of incomprehensible logic, gibberish, misdirection and switched cups, only to die mid-laugh when he doesn’t realize that both cups are poisoned. Inconceivable!
5. Final Showdown, Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone was a maestro of the tense moment, duels specifically, and here he doesn’t skimp on the goods.
There is the famous, extended opening at the train station whereby we are introduced to the character of Harmonica (Charlie Bronson), whilst watching him gun down three men sent to kill him, scored entirely by the sound of a squeaky windmill. There is the duel – well, not so much a duel as a game of chicken – between the cold blooded Frank (Henry Fonda, as the baddest of bad guys) and the McBain family, where he kills them all, right down to the innocent little kid. And there are any other number of tense moments throughout between any combination of the baddies and goodies.
Of course, it is the ending, when Harmonica and Frank finally face off over some decades old score and while not much really happens when you come right down to it – they face off and shoot and Frank dies – it is the way that Leone shoots the scene as if were grand opera, complete with lingering looks, flashbacks to the earlier moment that drives Harmonica’s need for revenge, gives what is otherwise a satisfying ending a real jolt of something extra that makes it times.
Incidentally, every time I watch this movie I invariably think about the speech at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs when Tarantino lays out his like a virgin story, claiming that the guy was so well hung he was like Charlie Bronson in The Great Escape, he was digging tunnels. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu2SsUOZjG8&feature=PlayList&p=ED5194A08D432875&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=21
4. The Duelists in The Duelists
Again, truth in advertising here.
A simple plot description for this movie finds two French officers during the Napoleonic wars initially squaring off over a slight misunderstanding that becomes the basis for a 15-year-long running battle between them as they search for satisfaction and come to learn the true destructive nature of obsession. It is a bit off putting that Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, two quintessentially American actors, are chosen to play the Frenchmen in question, but once you get passed the lack of any accent, they nevertheless do justice to an underrated movie, the first from Ridley Scott.
The key duel in this one occurs – as they all invariably do – at the end of the movie. After spending 15 years following Carradine’s trail in search of honor over the long forgotten slight, Keitel finally manages to arrange what he hopes will be the culmination of his quest. The duel takes place at dawn in some ruins near Carradine’s estate as the men play cat and mouse. Keitel, brash and overconfident as always, never gets a decent look at his opponent in the ruins but spends all his ammunition anyway. But rather than be killed he suffers a worse fate when Carradine leaves him alive out of disdain and pity, so that he may fully feel the singing insult of his opponent throughout the rest of his life. The final shot, as Keitel climbs a hill to watch a sunrise in contemplation of the shallowness of his quarrelsome nature and the pointless duel he has forced, is a wonder.
3. Peck v. Connors, The Big Country
Throughout much of his life Gregory Peck seemed to specialize in playing characters that were kind of dry-runs for the role of Atticus Finch. Tall, determined, honest, earnest and a little square but with the undercurrent of all-rightness that usually wins over his enemies in the end. His role in The Big Country is no different.
Here Peck plays McKay, an easterner come west to marry Carrol Baker, a rancher’s daughter. On his first day in town he is introduced to Steve (Charleton Heston) a ranch hand played by Charlton Heston, and one of the Hannassey clan, played by Chuck Connor’s in all his dirty-doggishness. From the get go everybody thinks Peck is a great big coward because he refuses to be riled by insults from Heston and his macho-inferiority complex. His cowardliness is only fully settled on when refuses to have anything but good-humor for the mean-spirited ribbing from Connors.
What they don’t understand is that Peck doesn’t believe in those kind of hard-headed, macho showdowns and it is only after he privately breaks an untamable horse, and privately goes toe-to-toe with Heston, that he starts to win some of that respect. Unfortunately, because he refuses to make a public fight out of things, his girl still thinks him a giant wuss and shoves him over.
It’s curious that when he finally establishes his tough-guy credentials for the whole world to see in the final duel, he does it with complete non-violence. In a plot point that appears later on this list, in Barry Lyndon, rather than shoot Connor’s down like a dog when Connor’s shot goes wild, Peck takes pity and fires his pistol into the ground. Connor’s, though, can’t stand the insult and when he tries to grab a nearby gun to have a second shot, Connor’s papa, played by the lovable Burl Ives of the Frosty, The Snowman shows from the 60s, shoots his own son in the back rather than let him bring any more dishonor on the family.
2. The Menage a’ Duel, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
In the grand scheme of things it’s hard to exclude any of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollar’s Trilogy’ from a list like this, considering they are made up of moment-after-dueling-moment, particularly the getting-to-know-you showdown between Monco and Mortimer, but the final showdown at the end of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is clearly the piece de resistance of the entire series. Pitting Tuco (Eli Wallach), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and Blondie (Clint Eastwood) the scene plays out almost statically, letting the tension linger and draw out, played perfectly against the spot-on score of Ennio Morricone, until in a momentary blaze of bullets, Blondie takes out Angel Eyes and get’s the goods on Tuco.
Looking back on it today the scene almost seems standard, but that’s because it has endured forty years of cinematic plagiarism – sorry, homage – by the Quentin Tarrantino’s of the world. QT may make it look easy, but nobody did it better than Leone and that’s why QT is all the way down in 8th spot whilst Mr. Leone enjoys the lofty status of having not one, but two films on the list. What’s startling about this film, in particular, is that in the hands of any other director this would have been the masterpiece of that person’s oevure, but for Leone it’s arguably only his second or third best movie.
1. Lord Bullingdon v. Redmond Barry Lyndon, Barry Lyndon
You know he’s got the stones for it
Fantastic and somewhat little-known Kubrick film is the unknown hero of the bunch. Telling the life story of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) the movie is famous almost as much on its own merits as it is for Kubrick’s perfectionism in making it, including his insistence on using natural lighting in every scene, sometimes requiring thousands of burning candles to illuminate the screen, that eventually pushed the man to develop revolutionary lenses capable of capturing such low levels of light.
Telling the story of a notorious ne’er-do-well and contemptible social climber, Barry Lyndon has two duels as the centerpiece of the action and which bookend the story. The first involves a young Redmond Barry in a duel with the soldier John Quint, ostensibly over some bit of satisfaction, but really for the love of Barry’s cousin, Nora. We see this duel in all its preparations, from the choosing of the pistols to Barry coolly shooting his opponent and escaping in the aftermath. The second takes place when Barry is an older, broken-down man, and features his wronged step-son as an opponent.
Kubrick allows the second duel top play out virtually in real-time and comes complete with a percussive and ponderous score that only heightens the tension. That we have seen Barry act so cold-bloodedly in his encounter with Quint years before has made it clear that he is a man who knows how to use a firearm and when the young Lord Bullingdon’s pistol misfires, this is certain to spell doom for the young man. But rather than shoot the boy, Barry fires his pistol into the ground. Unfortunately, Lord Bullingdon is not simply content to escape with his life intact at this point and in a cold-blooded twist on the earlier duel, he raises his pistol for a second shot and coolly shoots Barry’s leg out from under him.