Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Duel


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.

15 comments:

moviesandsongs365 said...

great review! Maybe one of the best tv-movies ever!

I wasn't aware of the psychological subtexts in Duel, and interesting comparison to Hitchcock's The Birds.

I don't remember seeing Dennis Weaver in any other movies, it apparently helped Steven S directing career , but not Weaver's?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment. You seem to be right about Weaver, looks like he never did get out of TV. Well, this isn't exactly an acting showcase, while it's not hard to see why the direction would make Spielberg's name.

John said...

Great review Ed,

Still one of my favorite Spielberg films. He had, and has, a brilliant knack for creating suspense through camera placement and crisp editing. As you mention, even at this early stage of his career, he was in command. Mann’s masculinity, or lack of, drives the entire film. He is not going to be pushed around by his mysterious truck driver as he is at home. He is not just fighting for his life but his manhood.

As for Dennis Weaver I always found him annoying, which is perfect for this role. He did make a couple of big screen films (A Man Called Sledge and What’s The Matter With Helen) but mainly was regulated to TV. I do remember another good TV film he did, in the early 80’s called “The Ordeal of Dr. (Samuel) Mudd” which deserves a DVD release.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John. This is such a great debut, a well-honed thriller with some very interesting psychosexual dynamics driving it. Weaver is annoying in this, but of course the character's supposed to be a whiny, somewhat pathetic loser, so that does work. Looking through Weaver's IMDB resume, the only other film I recognize is Budd Boetticher's fine The Man From the Alamo, in which Weaver apparently had an uncredited bit part. Looks like he got his start in Westerns.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It also resembles the films of Marco Ferreri -- who was a great fan of Duel

Sam Juliano said...

"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."

I must say Ed, I like that angle quite a bit! There's no doubt that in style and suspense quotient that DUEL is Hitchcockean, but THE BIRDS would not have immediately come to my mind, if at all in fact. That gas station lady indeed. Great analogy!

The precursor to that wild and wonderful phenomenon known as "road rage" (I was recently rear-ended by a car of teenagers, who then sped off, recalling the innocuous stages of DUEL), this deft psycological study is a textbook example of how a great film can be made on a miniscule budget. One of Spielberg's best-edited films, where every cut accentuates the tension, andd a film that inspired many that emplyed the same formula, like John Dahl's JOY RIDE (ROAD KILL), the 1997 BREAKDOWN and the often terrifying THE HITCHER. Richard Matheson of course is one of the most justly celebrated writers, venerated for his work on "The Twilight Zone."

Even the vociferous (minority) Spielberg detractors always have priased this one.

Excellent review.

David mentions Marco Ferreri. I don't think I can ever forget LA GRANDE BOUFFE, one of the all-time great gross-out movies!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. You're right to accentuate the editing, which is just phenomenal during all the road sequences here. The cutting, coupled with the bold use of low-angle and high-angle shots to emphasize the disparities between pursuer and pursued, make this an exceptionally well-made and well-directed film. Spielberg is really showing off in this one, which just adds to the cinematic fun. And I say that as a sometimes-detractor who doesn't have a lot of patience for some of of Spielberg's more self-consciously "big" movies. He's a great genre director and his feel for suspense and action is surpassed by few, as this movie shows very well.

Ed Howard said...

Oh, and I haven't seen any Ferreri, but now I really want to.

DavidEhrenstein said...

La Grande Bouffe is his most famous film, but THE ones to see are Dillnger is Dead (an intimate study of psychopathology starring Michel Piccoli, Annie Giradot and Anita Pallenberg), By Bye Monkey (Gerard Depardieu, marcello mastroianni, Gerladine Fitzgerald James Coco, and Avon Long shot in New York) and Don't Touch the White Woman (Custer's Last Stand staged in the ruins of Les Halles with Ugo Tognazzi, Phillipe Noiret, Alain Cuny and Catherine Deneuve)

Matthew Bradley said...

Nice analysis of this seminal film. Two points of possible interest:

Matheson was considered to write the screenplay for THE BIRDS, an assignment that eventually went to Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain). He met with Hitchcock, but due to a scheduling snafu, there were no agents to act as buffers between them. Matheson laughed in later years that he talked himself out of the assignment by telling Hitch that the film's effectiveness would be inversely proportional to how much he showed the birds!

Also, Spielberg cast Weaver largely because he hoped the actor could match the intensity he had shown in one of his few theatrical roles, as the nervous motel night manager in Orson Welles's TOUCH OF EVIL. When I interviewed Weaver not long before his death, he said that and DUEL were probably the high points of his film career.

For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).

Ed Howard said...

David, I've added a few of those Ferreri films to my Netflix queue now, thanks for the push from you and Sam.

Matthew, thanks for the additional info about Matheson and Weaver. I didn't know that Matheson had been considered for The Birds, though it does make sense — and his comment about not showing the birds much is interesting since we're talking about Spielberg, who basically followed exactly that philosophy in Jaws.

Doug said...

This was a great write up about a terrific movie I have not seen in a long time.

Your insights into the masculinity issues within the picture were right on the money. Great analysis. Did not think of "The Birds" as a reference myself, nice catch!

I will have to go and rewatch it this weekend.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Doug. It's definitely worth a rewatch, since it works as both a very tense thriller and a film with some very interesting psychological/thematic subtexts.

Ms.Zebra said...

I remember watching a clip of this in a film class. The prof. set up the story a bit, and I thought "ugh". By the end, I couldn't believe the truth: I was terrified of a big rig. Why is it that today's directors seem to have forgotten the masterpiece of suspense?

Ed Howard said...

Great story, Ms. Zebra. You're right, you'd never think it was going to be anything special at all if you heard a plot synopsis - and then Spielberg impresses with the sheer formal verve that he brings to the story. It's just great classical suspense filmmaking.