Spielberg Sunday: Duel (1971)

Dennis Weaver in Duel (Universal TV)

Owing to the fact that I have decided to honor Steven Spielberg this year with my version of a Lifetime Achievement Award I figured it was an appropriate time to dust off some old reviews I wrote when I took a course on his work. The remarks still hold true, he is an amazing filmmaker.

Duel is a film that is deceptively simple in its narrative. It is simple enough that if you are simply told what it entails you’d wonder “Well, how can that ever make a good movie?” This is the same thought I had when my Uncle told me about it and talked about how great it was. He wasn’t wrong and there are many reasons why this film works so well.

While Spielberg worked many wonders in wielding this tale into an unforgettable motion picture, for which, we cannot forget that Richard Matheson wrote a tremendous screenplay based on his own short story. When we watch this film we get a sense of quiet and inner-monologue along with paranoid, frightened contemplation by our protagonist which is so well laid out that this comes very close to being a novel on film which is why people thought it couldn’t be done.

At the beginning we have a long sequence from the point of view of the protagonist and the only thing we hear besides the car-whipped wind and the hum of the engine is a radio call-in show where a man is talking to a woman and saying that he feels emasculated by his wife. Little do we know it but we are getting information about our protagonist without even knowing about it. I had suspected this for if we weren’t hearing a reflection of our protagonist this background conversation would be most extraneous indeed. The first time we see our protagonist is a shot in the rear view mirror of his car.

Duel takes what is a very real situation and takes it to its most insane and cataclysmic possible conclusions, the quintessence of horror. All we get in most of the beginning is a truck and a little car on a road. One cuts the other off and then they exchange volleys and try and block each other off. It’s a situation people find themselves in quite often, the exchange of ‘being cut-off’ and it is likely that, more than once, someone has wondered ‘Maybe I should stop messing around with this guy I don’t know what’s going on in his head.’ Not only do we see a man pushed to his limits but we only see this man. The trucker appears but once in the whole film. Occasionally, we see an arm sticking out a window but most of the time it’s a mystery. The fear of the unknown is also played upon in this film to a great extent and in what took a lot of courage and was difficult to pull off we never really do get to meet the trucker or understand him.

I don’t often hear people talk about Spielberg’s visual sensitivity this is usually because people often confused good art direction and set design with cinematography this is not the case and ‘Duel’ proves it. We see the wheels bounce and the camera accompanies it. We have two instances in which Spielberg uses a close up on the speedometer to increase the tension just a quick little glimpse and we watch the climb 70, 80, 90, this in tandem with the Hitchcockian and an occasional sampling of vivacious Bluegrass music. We watch our lead talking to his wife through a washing machine lid to show how trapped he feels when talking to his wife. We see shots of the back of the dusty, grimy trucks that read ‘Flammable’ and foreshadow the trucker’s demise and many more. The important thing about all of his camera work in the film is that it all has a purpose it doesn’t just look pretty. There’s a beautiful sequence where Spielberg tracks around the grill of the car and around the back and does the same with the truck moving up and down as he goes. Not only does this get us closer to the battle but it leaves us uneasy as do much of the shots and it works tremendously.

The paranoia of the picture really shows itself when the man is in the diner. At this point and really at any point in the film his name is irrelevant (When speaking to the operator we discover his surname is Mann, that isn’t an accident). He is just any old guy. In the diner we hear his thought process as he jumps through possibilities and then just as any person might. We see him look at the bar and scan all the patrons up from their boots to their faces. In this scene he loses it and confronts the wrong man about the on highway altercation he had. It’s in fact probably a film that has become more relevant as the years have gone on with incidents of “Road Rage” and even the coining of that phrase. We’ve seen this sleeper go from an odd chunk of macabre and mutate into something not so far-fetched.

The tension just doesn’t let down. We see tight shots of the back of the bus with the kids antagonizing an already aggravated man. We later see a great shot of the truck going back into the tunnel. He comes and knocks the bus out so that he and the car can engage in battle. It’s all battle now the trucker has decided to take it to the finish. Our protagonist once tried to avoid it by sitting at the side of the road for an hour but the truck was waiting for him just around the bend. Spielberg returns to the speedometer towards the end as we see the speed decrease because the radiator hose is leaking. This was foreshadowed when he stopped at a gas station and the guy popped his hood and that was noted it was dismissed as mechanic jive.

This is a film that should be noted not just as the first film of a great filmmaker but a great film on its own.

9/10

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