Thursday, January 10, 2013

Duel (1971)

          A key moment in the ascent of Steven Spielberg from promising young Hollywood talent to genuine cinematic wunderkind, this arresting TV movie demonstrated Spielberg’s gift for using nimble camerawork and sure-handed pacing to create powerful onscreen excitement. Particularly since Spielberg made something from virtually nothing—the story is thin to the extreme of barely existing—it’s no surprise that historians often cite Duel as the project that gave Universal Studios the confidence to entrust Spielberg with Jaws (1975) just a short while later. (If you take the menacing big-rig truck in Duel and replace it with the shark in Jaws, the thinking goes, you’re dealing with similar storytelling problems.) Duel was written by acclaimed fantasist Richard Matheson, and the narrative couldn’t be simpler—when an everyman, who’s literally named David Mann (Dennis Weaver), gets into a lane-change hassle with the unseen driver of an 18-wheeler on a desert highway, the driver seeks revenge by spending the rest of the movie running Mann off the road, slamming into the back of Mann’s car, and taunting Mann into the last-man-standing battle suggested by the movie’s title.
          Yes, it’s 90 minutes, excepting a few bits when Mann stops for meals or phone calls, of a dude driving a car while a truck pursues him. The fact that Spielberg makes this relentlessly interesting is testament not only to his inherent gifts as a filmmaker but also to the soul-deep ambition that fueled the early days of his career. Undoubtedly stretching meager resources way past their limits, Spielberg shoots scenes elaborately, collecting every imaginable angle to create options in the editing room, and yet his camera’s nearly always in the right place—whether Spielberg’s shooting from a camera mounted by the rear wheels of the truck or from a camera positioned by the gas pedal of Mann’s car, looking up at the driver, Spielberg finds myriad ways to accentuate the physical details comprising a harrowing experience. We’re right there with Mann in a phone booth when the truck emerges from the rear of the frame, barreling toward the phone booth like a tidal wave; similarly, we’re right there with Mann in the driver’s seat when, at a crucial moment, his car succumbs to mechanical problems, creating a suffocating degree of instant panic.
          So, while it’s easy to list all the important things Duel lacks—a deeply developed leading character, an explanation for the truck driver’s psychotic behavior, a spectrum of integrated supporting characters—it’s more relevant to note how well Spielberg minimizes these shortcomings. Simply put, Duel was just the right project at just the right time for the young director. Rather than smothering a nuanced script with cinematic pyrotechnics—as he did with his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1973)—Spielberg exploited a one-note script for visual opportunities that might never have occurred to anyone else.



Griff said...

"an explanation for the truck driver’s psychotic behavior"

no it doesn't, the fact that it's unexplained makes it far scarier

Anonymous said...

I agree with Griffin the fact that the motive and identity of the truck driver remains a complete mystery is what makes the film so special. There are so many crimes comitted in real life including all these recent mass shootings that have no explanation that I feel the filmmaker's should not have to be straddled with always having to find a motive for why their psychotic characters do crazy things and sometimes when they do try to find a motive for them it gets tacky and contrived.

Otherwise this was a great review.

By Peter Hanson said...

To be clear, I didn't explicitly describe the lack of motivation as a fault; I merely stated as a fact that the movie doesn't provide the motivation. As it happens, I'm ambivalent about that aspect of the picture. I appreciate the purity of a villain who functions as a straight metaphor representing inexplicable evil, and yet on another level I wonder if the movie might have been deepened by insight into the villain. Still, one can't argue with results, and "Duel" is unquestionably fun and scary.

The Mutt said...

Oh.My.God. The scene when Mann keeps telling himself, "I'll beat him on the hill. I'll beat him on the hill." And then his tiny Dodge Dart starts to overheat.

That scene had my whole family screaming and squirming and jumping out of the chairs in our living room.

This movie scared the living shit out of me.

Louis Letizia said...

Saw this on the big screen when Universal cleverly rereleased this to theaters in January 1983 to capitalize on ET