Sunday, December 12, 2010

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Duel (1971)


In 1971, a promising young director named Steven Spielberg was locked into a seven year contract with Universal Studios and likely chafing at the limitations.   Then, his secretary handed Spielberg an issue of Playboy Magazine featuring the Richard Matheson short story of highway terror, "Duel."

The rest is film history. 

Spielberg shot the TV-movie adaptation of Matheson's classic tale in something like sixteen days (though some sources indicate twelve), on a budget of approximately 425,000 dollars.  The 73-minute version of the film aired on ABC for the first time November 13, 1971, and won the accolades of major national critics. 

Even more impressively, a 90-minute version of Duel played theatrically in Europe, and won the grand prize at the Festival de Cinema Fantastique in Avoriaz, France. 

Thanks to Duel, Spielberg's film career soon achieved escape velocity (at least after the relative hiccup of The Sugarland Express [1974]). 

In fact, Spielberg has always been the first to person to point out the many intriguing similarities between Duel and his first blockbuster hit, Jaws (1975). Both efforts  pit man against implacable, larger-than-life foes, either mechanical or natural, and both efforts also hint -- ever so subtly -- that the supernatural may even be involved in the clash. 

Less than a year from today, Spielberg's Duel will celebrate its fortieth anniversary.   Yet the mean, lean horror  film doesn't feel old or dated on a re-watch today.  On the contrary, it remains compelling and suspenseful; a veritable model of genre efficiency.

As New York Times critic Janet Maslin opined on the event of Duel's American theatrical release in 1983 (on the same day, actually, that Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead bowed...)  these early Spielberg effort "took advantage of the very narrowness of its premise, building excitement from the most minimal ingredients and the simplest of situations."

What this means in action is that Duel accelerates quickly from its first frame to its last, highlights only a few main characters, and showcases little dialogue.  The film is precisely what the title promises: a  "clash" between two dedicated combatants (a man driving a car and an unseen person manning the evil truck), with Spielberg's  splendid sense of visual metaphor carrying the day.

Much like Carpenter's brilliant Halloween (1978), the pure simplicity of Duel's structure and presentation permits the engaged viewer to layer on additional meanings and connections; to see more lurking beneath the hood, as it were, than the elegant screenplay literally expresses on the surface.  In this manner, Duel goes from being a basic tale of inexplicable road rage and survival to something infinitely more symbolic; a meditation on fate, and on Evil itself. 

European critics actually read Duel as a Marxist commentary on class warfare and capitalism in America, with the blue-class trucker pressing the gas hard as revenge against the entitled white-collar David Mann.  This is an interpretation which Spielberg famously and publicly resisted. 

Yet, as other critics have rightly pointed out there does seem to be a powerful subtext here about the state of masculinity in 1970s America, at the rise of the nascent women's liberation movement.

However, what makes Duel endlessly suspenseful and scary is not this admittedly-interesting social commentary, but rather Spielberg's canny visualizations of the sustained road battle.  In particular, he often frames the attacking truck as an invader in the frame itself; one that consumes and devours space and literally squeezes out [poor David Mann, "the little guy."  The impression given the audience is a world out-of-order, and of an over-sized, overpowered nemesis.

Late in the film, the beleaguered Valiant driver wonders how the malevolent, steam-belching truck can drive so fast, and in that one little moment the specter of the supernatural is appropriately raised.  Is the truck driven by the Devil?  Is it purely and simply Evil on 18-wheels?  This bit of dialogue is just a welcome implication -- the icing on the cake as it were -- but it contributes infinitely to the mythic and scary qualities of the 1971 film.

If you remember such films as The Car (1977), Christine (1983),  or the vignette in Nightmares (1983) starring Lance Henriksen, you can begin to understand the thematic and visual impact and influence of Spielberg's sterling adaptation of Duel. 

"Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way!"
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) calls for police help, while his 18-wheel nemesis barrels unexpectedly into frame.
Duel depicts a harrowing interlude in the life of a put-upon business man, David Mann (Dennis Weaver).  He departs for work in his red, 1970 Plymouth Valiant and -- on the open road -- ends up behind a filthy, smog-spewing Peterbilt truck.  Running late for a business appointment, David passes the truck on the road, crossing the lane into approaching traffic to do so.

Soon, the truck passes David, and he finds himself in the same predicament...choking down diesel fumes.  So David passes the big rig a second time, only, apparently, to spawn the enduring rage of the unseen driver.  Before long, the truck driver knowingly gestures David into the path of an oncoming car.  Then, the driver begins a relentless high-speed pursuit, attempting to run David off the road.

After slamming into a split rail fence, David stops at Chuck's Cafe.  There, he discovers -- to his horror -- that the offending truck has also arrived.  David attempts to ferret out the identity of the mysterious driver from the local diners, but only succeeds in making a scene with an innocent patron.

All day, the game of cat and mouse on the desert highway continues, escalating to pure terror.  The truck attempts to nudge David's Valiant onto railroad tracks as a locomotive crosses at full speed.  Finally, the implacable truck pursues David's out-matched Valiant up a treacherous mountainside.

When the Valiant's radiator hose breaks, and the car comes to a dead end at the mountain's apex, David must turn and face his oncoming enemy one last time...

"There you are, right back in the jungle again..."
David strikes a macho pose; but the specter of mechanical domesticity (a laundry dryer...) still looms over him.

On the surface, Duel is clearly a case of Man vs. Machine (or Mann vs. Machine), but roiling underneath the surface of this perfectly composed horror/action piece is an interesting  and unsettling commentary about masculinity in America circa 1970. 

A bit of history: Duel was crafted during the dawn of the "New Feminism" in this country.  The National Organization for Women, for instance, saw its ranks swell from 1,200 to 48,000 in the span from 1967 and 1970 alone.   

And in Spring of 1972, just a few months after Duel premiered, Time Magazine devoted an entire issue (March, 1972) to the subject of the Women's Liberation Movement.  The editors memorably termed the age a "time that tries men's souls." 

What that description indicates is that as much as women were fighting for an equal share of the pie at home in the work-place, some disco decade men felt, simultaneously...lost at sea.  

In the article "Women's Liberation Re-Visited," University of Michigan Psychologist Joseph Adelson was quoted as saying this:  "As any clinician knows, these days the problem in male sexuality lies in the opposite direction, not in phallic megalomania but rather in sexual diffidence and self-doubt,"  

It is in this cloud of "sexual diffidence and self-doubt" that Duel dwells.  This is where Dennis Weaver's protagonist -- and America too -- are living at the particular moment of the encounter with the evil rig.  "The concept of man as hunter and woman as keeper of the hearth, these feminists declare, is obsolete and destructive for both sexes," wrote Time Magazine.

But what ideal or order fills that void?  That's where the confusion rested for some men and some women, too, in determining what the new "role" for each sex was to be.

Early in Duel, this dissonance between "obsolete and destructive" tradition (patriarchy) and the new equality is evident.  When David Mann stops at a gas station, the attendant there tells him that "he is the boss."  David's response is simple, terse and telling: "Not in my house I'm not."  

This idea of a new sense of order is also reflected back at him by the attendant.  "Fill it with Ethel," says Mann.  "As long as Ethel doesn't mind," the attendant replies.  Encoded in that funny back-and-forth is the fear of offending an empowered woman; already the "the boss" in David's household.

A moment later, Mann enters the gas station to call his wife at home, and strikes "an exaggeratedly masculine posture" (pictured above), according to film scholar and biographer Nigel Morris in The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light (Wallflower Press, 2007, page 24). 

Mann strikes this pose, however, in an emasculating long shot, a directorial selection which actually distances us from the character, and makes him seem small and silly rather than large and powerful (as a low angle shot might have accomplished).

During that phone conversation, Spielberg cross-cuts to Mann's wife at home, where she is dusting and cleaning the living room (stereotypical "women's work") while two children play on the carpet around her, oblivious to their parents. 

But Mann's wife is very angry with David because at an office event the previous night, a co-worker "practically raped" her, and David did nothing about it.  Mrs. Mann pushes and prods her husband again and again, saying that he should at least "say something" (in other words, stand up for her honor; he thinks she means "punch the guy out.")

As this contentious conversation lingers, Mann's exaggeratedly masculine pose is  suddenly and totally eclipsed by a symbol of domesticity (and again, stereotypical "women's work)".  To wit: a woman's hand opens a laundry dryer door in the foreground of the shot; and David is essentially caged inside that transparent bubble. 

As Morris wrote on this topic:  "Mann literally is viewed through the female lens, this film repeatedly associating women, at the height of second wave feminism, with household labor." (Empire of Light; page 24)

At another point in the film, during David Mann's drive, the subject of endangered, confused (and diffident...) masculinity again arises. On the radio, Mann listens to a call-in program in which a confused man asks an important tax question (of a woman employee of the Federal government, importantly).  He is confused about filing his taxes because he is "the man of the family" but not "head of family."  He stays home and cooks and cleans; and his wife goes to work, so she is -- technically -- "head of household."  The caller seems abundantly confused about this upturning of the familiar social order, and even somewhat depressed by it.

Again, this particular radio show dialogue -- like the telephone conversation with Mann's wife, like the conversation with the gas station attendant -- harks back to the American crisis in masculinity during the rise of Second Wave Feminism.

Finally, Mann's masculinity is overtly threatened by the appearance on the road of a much larger vehicle (a phallic symbol?);  one ostensibly driven by a long-standing American representation of traditional masculinity: a cowboy, right down to his cowboy boots.  

This "real man" - a truck-driving cowboy 'merican -- plays for keeps, and is not at all henpecked, confused or diffident.  When this nemesis takes offense at another's actions, he doesn't apologize or choke down his emotions.  He doesn't "talk about it," as the effete Mann attempts to do with the wrong man in Chuck's diner.  No, he seeks revenge, pure and simple; he seeks to best his opponent, scorched Earth-style.  This is mankind at his most overtly,  confidently masculine, and paradoxically, at his most brutal and frightening.

So, finally, Duel becomes what author Andrew Gordon in Empire of Dreams called an "exercise in paranoia" in which "the hero is stripped of his secure, everyday identity and must prove his manhood [italics mine] by tapping hidden resources of endurance, resourcefulness, and courage." (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, page 15).

That assessment puts a fine point on it.  In the Age of Second Wave Feminism, a time that "tried men's souls," this guy needs to -- in the modern vernacular of Sharron Angle - "man-up" and slay the technological dragon.

During one of Mann's interior dialogues, he seems to recognize the fact that he must call upon the atavistic qualities of his sex (as hunter, and as warrior),  Specifically, he notes that he is"right back in the jungle now."   That may be a more dangerous place than mechanized, domesticated modern society, but at least Mann understands the rules of the jungle: kill or be killed.

And indeed, Mann only beats the evil trucker when he forgoes help from outside forces (like the police), and stops asking others for assistance.  In fact, he is denied assistance from another henpecked man, a senior citizen who comes across him on the road and -- at his wife's insistence -- refuses to call the police for Mann. 

Amazingly, the Trucker won't even let Mann surrender. "The highway's all yours Jack... I'm not budging for at least an hour," Mann says, deciding to hide in a cul-de-sac.  But the truck finds him.  Again and again. 

So it's  literally a case of Mann up or die. 

Finally, having exhausted his other options (including total capitulation of the road), that's precisely what Mann does.  And the film cuts to a sort of Western or action-hero styled "suit-up scene" in which Mann settles into his seat, affixes his seat belt, puts on his gold-tinted sun glasses, and takes the Valiant into battle.

"Looked like a big complication to me!"

The giant truck dominates the frame in Duel; again and again
In my estimation, there are some rare genre films that are literally perfectly composed; visualized with such skill, flair and talent that they simply can't be improved upon.  I count Carpenter's Halloween and Spielberg's Duel among these rare titles.  In the case of the latter, Spielberg brilliantly and elegantly makes the film's form imaginatively reflect its content.

Above, I noted how Mann is lost in the world of the 1970s: deflated and diffident about his place.  He's henpecked by his wife, and the film also suggests he's saddled with an overbearing mother.  Other men (on the job...) seem to take advantage of him, and his overall wimpiness, too. 

The bulk of the film involves Mann pitted against the ultimate enemy, a truck that literally wants to take his space in the world and squeeze him right out of creation.   The truck is thus literally a road hog of the existential variety. 

In the early scene wherein Mann parks his Valiant at a gas pump, Spielberg's camera is positioned in front of the approaching vehicle.  The Valiant stops close-by, but there is still some distance remaining in the frame between the camera and the  Plymouth's front end.  The shot feels appropriate to convention; not exaggerated or heightened.

But suddenly, the giant rig pulls into the parallel pump lane, and it immediately  traverses that remaining distance, virtually pulling right up to the lens.  This is an invasion, a usurpation of frame space, and it is a filmic metaphor for the truck's malevolent purpose in the screenplay.

Mann's space is again tread upon, here by the over-sized truck.
Later, there's another gorgeous shot in which Spielberg gives us a full view of the landscape, a long shot. 

In the foreground, bigger than everything (even mountains) is the giant truck, and small -- almost ant-like -- is Mann.  Our hero stands isolated in the middle of the road, outside his suit of armor (his car; the Valiant), metaphorically naked and unprotected.   

Even in this shot (pictured to the left), you can immediately see how the truck's position occludes spectatorship; how the giant truck overwhelms everything else, cutting into Mann's space in the center of the frame. 

In other words, the frame consists of a kind of symmetry: truck on the left; Mann in frame center; and the Valiant positioned on the far right.  But just look at how far into Mann's "middle" terrain the truck invades.  This is a deliberate usurpation of symmetry, of shot space, and again, it visually reinforces the narrative.

Another example of order overturned involves a phone booth in the desert (another shot pictured above).  Mann believes he is safe and secure in the phone booth as he calls the police for assistance, but in fact the booth is just another cage that traps him.  And, deliberately sowing disorder, the truck juts into frame and barrels through the booth at near warp-speed.  Mann escapes in the nick-of-time, but order and civilization are destroyed.

Again and again, Spielberg deploys gorgeous and contextually-appropriate mise-en-scene to express the movie's themes and central oppositional relationship; that of a man who feels small and diffident battling an unnaturally big and perhaps supernatural opponent.

Except for some great, paranoid interior monologues, Duel mostly eschews explanation and dialogue.  Instead, Spielberg makes the visuals dictate the shape of his narrative.  Sometimes these visuals are of road signs or other symbolic indicators.  A sign reading STOP appears at a pertinent moment, for example, and the legend on the back of the devil truck reads FLAMMABLE.  That's a nice way of saying the driver has a really bad temper: mess with him and he'll explode, literally.

At other instances in Duel, extreme close-ups of the odometer needle -- leaning right into the danger zone of "100 milers per hour" --  tell us what we need to know in any given moment.    These insert shots, like the "information overload" close-ups of shark books, police reports and  even doodles, etc, in Jaws, make us feel a sense of heightened immediacy.  It's as if we're driving the car in this case; or peering into the rear view with our own eyes.

To further heighten this sense of immediacy, the interlude in Chuck's Cafe is shot hand-held, almost jerky, as if we -- like Mann -- have become untethered from the natural order and are taking tentative steps into new, possibly dangerous territory.  We don't know where we stand in this place; and neither does Mann.

Finally, I love the metaphor of the finale: Mann literally "reaches the mountaintop" and destroys his enemy.  The battle royal is the summit of the extended duel; at a geographical apex of the landscape, and also the apotheosis of the character who -- appropriately suited-up -- finally beats his never-seen but intractable opponent. He has achieved his destiny as knight (a destiny suggested by the film's title; and the name of his car, Valiant.) 

In this instance, everyday, ordinary Mann has recovered and reclaimed his masculinity.

There's just no two ways about it.  Duel works on all kinds of levels: as straight, terrifying horror film, and as a loaded commentary on its time and the crisis in masculinity that accompanied the New Feminism of the early 1970s.   In later years, Spielberg has often lapsed into overt sentimentality  and schmaltz in some of his more popular cinematic works, but Duel remains-- wonderfully -- Spielberg at his nastiest and most efficient.  

Honk if you love Duel...

11 comments:

  1. Fantastic analysis, John! Spielberg (using a great script by the master, Richard Matheson) was a his most efficient (and at the antithesis of his latter work). The reference and comparison to Carpenter's HALLOWEEN film is a worthy one, as well. As you state, the relative sparse environment this duel is conducted makes for one stage to tell this story.

    I'd also point out the selection of Mann's vehicle was spot-on as it represents the uncertain masculine theme so prominent in the movie. By '71, the Plymouth Valiant had been stripped of all that made it distinct. The style lines were reduced to a then oh so bland model. It was equally unpowered (remember, I'm old enough to recall sitting in gas lines during that decade) to become a more domesticated fuel-efficient vehicle. For many, it was valiant in name only. It's a perfect fit for Weaver's character here.

    You're written a outstanding evaluation of this film, John. It is very much a "mean, lean horror film" that doesn't feel dated, even though it represents that long gone era with authenticity. Thanks for this.

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  2. Le0pard13:

    Thank you for that wonderful comment, my friend.

    You brilliantly added another piece to the puzzle of Duel.

    I had no knowledge whatsoever of the 71 Valiant, or that it "had been stripped of all that made it distinct." That "the style lines were reduced to a then oh so bland model. It was equally unpowered... to become a more domesticated fuel-efficient vehicle. For many, it was valiant in name only. It's a perfect fit for Weaver's character here."

    That's fantastic; great history to know and process as it related to this movie and Weaver's character. It really adds to the genius non-verbal approach to storytelling Spielberg employed. Even the car on display had been revised per the norms of the age, domesticated as you say. And I totally think car culture accounts for an important part of the film's algebraic equation.

    Thank you, my friend,

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Glad this film was made way back when. I would hate to see what the modern Spielberg would do with it.

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  4. Davidfullam:

    Thank you for the comment.

    And yes, I can't totally disagree with you.

    I have long admired Steven Spielberg's film work in the 1970s; but only occasionally have I felt as strongly about his modern efforts (though I do rather like both Minority Report and War of the Worlds, plus Jurassic Park).

    Hopefully I'll get around to reviewing all of those on the blog!

    Best,
    JKM

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  5. How many times do TV movies (pre-'80s and/or HBO) measure up to to actual motion pictures? Not many. Thank goodness Duel is around to remind us how a good filmmaker can do much with less; if only the clods who made the recent Jolie/Depp "flop" had this insight!

    Actually, I'd hate to see what the Spielberg who made 1941 would do with Duel!

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  6. Fang Shih-yu:

    Good point.

    Duel is about doing a lot with very little (even time...). 1941 is about doing very little with a whole lot.

    But you're right, it's amazing to think that this made-for TV-movie totally trounces a lot of major motion pictures over the last several decades. It's an extraordinary work of art.

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.

    best,
    JKM

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  7. Grayson9:05 PM

    When Mann says he is "right back in the jungle now" he is on one level speaking about where our species came from, as warriors and hunters in the jungle. It has been a long time since I watched this but is there any indication in the film that Mann may also be talking about an experience in Vietnam here?

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  8. Grayson: That's an intriguing speculation; the idea of a Vietnam War metaphor in Duel somewhere.

    It certainly seems plausible given the timing; now I need to watch the movie again!

    When I wrote this review, I did not see dubs overt sign of a Vietnam angle (like I did the examples regarding the crisis in masculinity), but that doesn't mean the metaphor is absent.

    One of the great things about Duel, in fact, is the way the film opens itself up to multiple readings. I recently read another interpretation of the film that found it "homo-erotic, what with all the truck-on-Valiant rear-ending!! :)

    But this is a very interesting notion...and it certainly merits further study and debate...

    best,
    JKM

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  9. SteveW4:08 PM

    Great analysis. You're absolutely right of course about the '70s-era "crisis of masculinity" subtext here (extended, of course, in "Jaws" in the comic tension between Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss). Of course a lot of filmmakers dealt with that subject in that period, but Spielberg did it with a skillful, light, populist touch in his genre entertainments.

    But you really hit the nail on the head when you write that "the visuals dictate the shape of [the] narrative." The dynamic visual compositions and spacial relationships in this movie are the real subject here, and still dazzling to this day. NO ONE knew how to compose shots better than '70s-era Spielberg. That truck in "Duel" is one of the great mythic movie monsters purely on the strength of how he positions it within the movie frame. Astounding that he put this picture together in 12-16 days of shooting. It's like an essay on dynamic visual storytelling

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  10. SteveW:

    "It's like an essay on dynamic visual storytelling." -- I could not have said that better. I totally agree with you and with that statement.

    The truck in Duel is indeed a great mythic movie monster, as you trenchantly note, because of the very way Spielberg frames it.

    The film is an incredible tour-de-force for Spielberg and I concur with you: no one (with the possible exception of JC) knew how to compose shots better back in the day.

    Great comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  11. Anonymous12:34 AM

    excellent review...i would like to add that in the very end, when mann is sitting there exhausted throwing rocks over the cliff, that his dejection may be because he has lost his foil, the challenge that brought back his masculinity. sort of like "alexander wept for he had no worlds left to conquer." certainly the crash scene, with its setting, was like a shootout duel in the old west which mann won, although i think he gave away the fact he was going to jump out too soon by standing outside the car while charging the truck.
    but anyway, after beating the foe that restored his manhood, he sat there realizing that it was probably back to the old henpecked way of living.
    the trucker, with his rusty but menacing, large truck representing the old order as opposed to mann's little emasculated valiant, actually may have sacrificed himself to help mann restore himself to the old ways where the man was the boss.

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