In the opening moments of director Ridley Scott's 1977 feature debut The Duellists, a Napoleonic-era French officer played by Keith Carradine confronts fellow officer Harvey Keitel about the latter's penchant for dueling. Keitel, affronted that Carradine gives military regulations precedence over ancient codes of honor, challenges his peer to a duel. Carradine quickly leaves Keitel with an incapacitating wound, but over the next 16 years, their paths keep crossing, and against Carradine's will, they keep dueling. Screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes adapted The Duellists (at Scott's request) from a short story by Joseph Conrad, which explains the characters' obsessive behavior, their excessive concern with manly honor, and the plot's pointedly absurd repetition. As with most Conrad stories, this one is both broadly sketchy and thematically rich, though there's not really enough of it to fill 100 minutes–even with the frail subplot about Carradine's decade-long infatuation with the world-weary Diana Quick. But in spite of the material's thinness, and even though Carradine and Keitel look ridiculous sporting fancy duds while speaking bodice-ripper dialogue in flat American accents, The Duellists endures as a diverting action potboiler. Credit Scott's direction: Emerging from a successful advertising career, he picked an ideal property for a first film, one packed with opportunities for stylish setpieces. He stages each duel distinctively, sometimes framing the action straight-ahead, sometimes making more of the misty locations than the figures within them, and sometimes trimming the fighting to nothing while cutting rapidly between the preparation and the aftermath. Scott's command of pacing and mood led immediately to his 1979 work at the helm of Alien, which in turn kicked off a mostly successful career. In addition to a dry-but-informative Scott commentary track (and a redundant half-hour conversation between Scott and colleague/admirer Kevin Reynolds), the new DVD edition of The Duellists includes the black-and-white short film "Boy And Bicycle," written and directed by Scott and starring his brother Tony as a teenager riding around, wasting time, and carrying on a rambling interior monologue. Again, it's not as rich a character study as it wants to be, but the British seaside locations are striking, as are Scott's camera angles. He's rarely been hailed as an artist, but Scott's technical proficiency and gift for concise visual storytelling remain admirable, and both are on full display in The Duellists, which shows his tendency to get the look right and leave the deeper meanings elusive.

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