Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Duel was the first film of Steven Spielberg, made for TV and adapted from a short story by pulp author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. It's a remarkably simple, stripped-down film, a teeth-gritting suspense thriller that unrelentingly increases the pressure on the traveling businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) as he faces off with a vicious truck driver who seems intent on killing Mann. Spielberg slowly builds up the suspense, seemingly from thin air: the first time the truck appears, Spielberg's low angles and uncomfortable closeups of the truck's rusty grille and thick, rotted fenders already suggest something sinister. The film begins with innocuous jockeying for position on the road, as the impatient Mann, late for a meeting, passes the truck, only to have it pass him in return, promptly slowing down again as soon as it's in front of him. It wouldn't play as anything other than ordinary highway machismo if it wasn't for Spielberg's menacing camera angles, which make the truck loom over the much smaller car, its grille like a hungry maw, its whole surface grimy and rusted, its driver obscured so that the truck seems like an inhuman, mysterious threat. When Mann pauses at a gas station, the truck pulls up next to him, and Spielberg shoots from above, looking down over the truck's cab at Mann and his little red sedan, emphasizing how he's dwarfed by his adversary.
The subtext of this highway duel is masculinity, as suggested by Mann's phone conversation with his wife when he calls her from the gas station, before the action begins in earnest. They'd had an argument the night before because they'd been at a party where a friend or business associate had obviously been all over Mann's wife — "he practically raped me," she says, as the couple's two kids play innocently nearby — and Mann had done nothing to stop the harassment. With the incident behind them, she's willing to let it drop now, but it's obvious that it was a failure of masculinity for Mann, a failure to protect his wife and defend her honor, a failure to assert his strength and dominance as a man. (His name is even Mann: get it?) A sexual failure, too, the failure to maintain his exclusive sexual possession of his woman. This brief conversation colors the entire film, as does the radio program that Mann listens to during the introductory scenes, a conversation in which a man worries that he's not the "head of his household," that his wife really runs things. Mann, when a gas station attendant tells him, "you're the boss," makes a similar joke, wearily tossing off, "not at home," suggesting that he, too, feels like his masculinity is not entirely secure, that he's also not the head of his household.
These concerns are echoed in a later scene where Mann, during a respite from the truck's assaults, comes across a school bus that's stranded by the side of the road. The bus driver wants Mann to push the bus out of the dusty shoulder, but Mann simply gets their bumpers locked together and gets stuck himself, as the kids in the bus make faces at him and mock him, their laughing faces captured in uncomfortable closeups that emphasize Mann's humiliation. When the truck suddenly appears and easily pushes the school bus back onto the road, the symbolism couldn't be more obvious: it's a visualization of impotence, as Mann's car fails to have the power or vitality to do the job, while the big, powerful truck just charges in and pushes.
Maybe it's this psychological subtext, but there's something very Hitchcockian about Spielberg's debut. The film is populated with colorful Hitchcockian bit players — especially a vibrant old lady who runs a roadside gas station slash rattlesnake farm — and has moments of suspense and dark humor worthy of the master. At one point, at a café, Mann's reveries are interrupted by the loud clatter of silverware as a waitress tosses down a place setting and asks for his order, the woman seeming to loom over Mann as she's shot from a low angle: everything begins to unnerve the poor guy, who looks around the café trying to figure out which one of the men here with him might be the truck's hateful driver. More generally, all these wide open spaces, coupled with the general situation of a man pursued by a vehicle seemingly intent on his death, evoke the crop duster showdown of North By Northwest. But the film Duel resembles the most, in some surprising ways, is actually The Birds. Much as in the Hitchcock film, Duel is about senseless, incomprehensible violence, about something innocent turning on the protagonist and seeking his destruction without any apparent reason. Just as the birds have no purpose, no cause for their sudden violence, the truck driver in Duel remains inscrutable, his face always obscured — the most Mann ever sees of the driver is his boot and his forearm. This sudden violence makes no sense, it's a nightmare of helplessness, as inexplicable as it is terrifying.
Spielberg, even at this early stage, has a real feel for these scenes of suspense and action. The editing is crisp but not choppy, alternating between wide angles and long shots that show the car and the pursuing truck winding around twisty mountain roads, and closeups that capture the contrast between the implacable, monstrous facade of the truck and the sweaty human desperation of Mann in his car. Throughout it all, the sun beats down on the cars, bright and huge, spreading its white glow diffusely across the whole sky, refracting in the chrome and dirty glass of the dueling vehicles. The film feels hot and dusty, with Mann trapped between the steaming heat of the sun and the clouds of dust kicked up beneath the tires of his car.
That atmosphere, coupled with the mysterious, almost apocalyptic aura of the unyielding, unstoppable truck, makes Duel a consistently powerful debut film from the soon-to-be blockbuster director. The film does bog down during its middle section in the café, where Mann tries to grapple with what's happening to him. His internal monologue, delivered in voiceover, is awkwardly handled and doesn't add much to the film that isn't conveyed much more potently without words. This is a concept that requires few words and few adornments, and once Mann returns to the road, pursued by the unrelenting truck that haunts him, the film picks up speed again and never slows down until its fiery conclusion.