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Duel (1971)

by on 2010/10/21

A stepping stone between the small and silver screens, Steven Spielberg’s early effort is a different kind of road movie.  Based on one of author Richard Matheson’s latter day short stories, Duel distills his Twilight Zone past, and anticipates Spielberg’s own features to come, all filtered through the influence of Alfred Hitchcock.  Its followers have given chase — the Death Races, the Mad Maxes, the Knight Riders — but they’re different beasts altogether.  For whatever is going on in Duel, it could possibly happen to you.

Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, Touch of Evil) stars as David Mann, a salesperson in an age before teleconferencing, cell phones, or GPS.  He’s driving through California to meet an important client, and must return promptly for a family matter.  The problem is, he and his red four-door Valiant are the recipients of some unwanted attention by a mysterious, monstrous old truck.  Minor annoyance becomes petty vengeance in a dangerous escalation.  Our hero gets little sympathy and less help from those potential allies he encounters.  Is it just bad timing, apathy, or something else entirely keeping him on the run alone?

On the surface the story appears to be about driving but, while such decoration provides an entry for the average viewer, odd touches and ambiguities allow for something more abstract, mythic, and primal.  The protagonist’s internal monologue, the absence (or at least anonymity) of the Peterbilt truck driver, the bestial roar of the truck itself . . . these creative decisions all lend support to the possibility Mann is imagining his own predicament.  Like a Twilight Zone episode stretched to feature length, Duel may test the viewer’s patience, but the deliberate pacing achieves a sense of distance and isolation.  The extended version, based on the European theatrical release, adds some additional wrinkles but never quite pushes the suspense into thriller territory.

“Why does he keep driving?” I would wonder from time to time.  Every time I asked, my answer changed:  he needs to make the rendezvous; he’s gone too far to turn back; he’s completely snapped.  Spielberg has referred to Duel as his take on High Noon (1952).  I understand the comparison but, in the absence of a companion, a clear goal, and a deadline, I would have never drawn the same conclusion.  While it obviously didn’t exist until much later, the title that came to mind for me was Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas portrays a small man pushed past the breaking point.  The two works share an inevitable dread.

Early on Mann samples several radio stations, finally lingering on an interview with a househusband concerned for his social standing.  The driver listens a bit before voicing his solidarity.  In fact he frequently speaks (or thinks) aloud.  Intrapersonal communication doesn’t guarantee mental illness, but is unusual enough to serve as a warning, particularly in a medium known for diegetic economy.  Not only does he identify and sympathize with the voice of the underdog, but a subsequent phone call to his wife reveals an uneasy marriage, and he loses his composure when yet another character mentions Mann “needs help”.  Combine these brief flashes with his growing paranoia, and I fully expected the film to end with him waking straightjacketed in a rubber room.  Does his nemesis even exist?  Is he himself its (projected) pilot?  Or is the truck a High Plains Drifter, a spirit of retribution?  The plot will eventually be resolved but such questions?  Not so much.

The spareness and simplicity have their relative pros and cons but the psychological textures surprised me.  Spielberg mines unexpected complexity from a somewhat limited piece.  His choice of material and its handling invoke the auteur of classic suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.  I see similarities to Psycho (1960) and The Birds, as others have proposed, but for me the motifs of accidental commitment, a compulsive journey, and various entanglements recall The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, and North by Northwest.  The Beard is no Hitch but he gets his suspense right more often than not.  He understands that the unseen can be the most frightening thing of all.

Unlike his teacher, however, this student doesn’t settle for rear projection.  The stunts are physical and effective.  Point of view shots are convincingly vicarious.  Chases convey both heft and fragility, with realistic motion.  Some vehicular trickery may have been present, but never feels overt.  Other tricks are less satisfying.  Sudden insight is demonstrated with quick jump cuts along a zoom, a jarring effect which feels like an insult to the actor and audience alike.  Continuity errors — something I don’t usually note — crop up with unusual frequency here, not to mention the distracting surprises revealed in numerous reflective surfaces.  A single casual viewing caught photo lights shining on Mann’s sunglasses, the crew mirrored against a window, and the director himself caught in a phone booth.  At least when the Master of Suspense did a cameo it was intended!

And if these various elements did not already whisper “Hitchcock”, the score by Billy Goldenberg screams Psycho loud and clear, with groan-inducing string stabs at a couple of pivotal moments.  The remainder of his score sounds more experimental, like an early attempt to mash up sound effects.  The result is an interesting sonic collage, but doesn’t feel true to the overall whole.  A more effective palette might have resolved the disconnect:  fewer bottles and windchimes, more sand and stone and steel.  Minimal texture is appropriate to the telling but, with Duel’s mechanical avatars, I’d expect more industry than tranquility.  Overall, though, it’s a fairly compelling experience.

Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive.  “Freeway Games” by Orson Scott Card.  Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.  I had no idea when I read and watched each that I was seeing the influenced, the echoes, and the followers of the original road rage tale.  As if anticipating his own imminent blockbuster, Spielberg delivers a Bizarro Jaws for the back roads.  Without the benefit of fancy camera work, explosions, or CGI, Duel achieves a kind of Speed for the thoughtful viewer . . . or their grandparents, who just don’t know what this world is coming to.

* * * *

Rated PG for language and violence

90 minutes (Collector’s Edition DVD version)

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