Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book Review: Horror Noir

In 2008, I had the pleasure of receiving a review copy of Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir by Paul Meehan. 

That highly-detailed film reference book utterly captivated me, and was a creative, thoughtful and thorough examination of the ties binding the film noir to the science fiction genre since the origination of film as an art form.

I've read and re-read Meehan's Tech-Noir ever since -- especially because I have hopes of crafting a Tech-Noir web or film production one of these days (named "Goblin Market")  -- and so I looked forward with great anticipation to the author's follow-up sister text, Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet.

In short, this 2010 film book from McFarland doesn't disappoint. 

Meehan returns to his film studies with a well-written monograph on the "juncture of criminality and monstrosity" in cinema, the crossroads where horror and film noir  intersect.

In his introduction, Meehan rightly notes that, in large part, film noir and the horror film share a "realm of cinematic style," meaning, as he enumerates them: low-key ratio-lighting, absence of fill-light, wide-angle lens use in close-ups to distort faces, etc. 

Meehan also points out the deployment in both genres of "anti-traditional narrative techniques," meaning flashbacks and voice-over narration specifically. This chapter nicely sets the parameters of the ensuing survey, allowing the reader to understand which productions exist in the unique "space" of the horror noir, and why so.

Following the introduction, Meehan provides a nifty and pithy distinction between supernatural and psychological horror, and then launches right into the macabre meat of the book: a decade-by-decade survey of films he highlights as belonging to this union of genres; to this so-called "horror noir." 

The author begins the study in the 1930s with films such as Dr. X (1932) and Freaks (1932) and then moves into the 1940s with examples such as Nightmare Alley (1947) and Night has a Thousand Eyes (1948). 

The chapter-by-chapter scan of the decades brings readers right up to the present with discussions of recent films such as The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). That often-derided (but I think genius...) Chris Carter film is actually the epitome of horror noir, particularly in its emphasis on the film noir theme of "black medicine," (think Eyes without a Face, as Meehan trenchantly points out...).  

I must confess, this was not an angle of the Carter film I had really considered thoroughly, and which makes an I Want to Believe re-watch absolutely necessary.  On a side-note, I deeply respect and admire film books that achieve this goal; they make me want to go back and see a film again, with new information critical to a different interpretation of it.  In the course of the book, Meehan achieves this threshold over and over, bringing a new and valid viewpoint to films you have enjoyed in the past, but perhaps on a different basis.

In between the decade survey chapters, Meehan takes the reader down some fascinating side alleys too, into "Monster Noir," "Hitchcock's Psychological Ghosts and Dopplegangers," "The Noir Horrors of Hannibal the Cannibal" and my personal favorite, "Mean Streets of Hell," the chapter that discusses Exorcist III (1990), Jacob's Ladder (1990), Se7en (1995), Lord of Illusion (1995) and Scorses's Shutter Island (2010).  All of these films endlessly fascinate me -- even if some don't quite work -- and it was illuminating to read about them under this new, organizing rubric of horror noir.

As a writer of reference books myself, I am sensitive to reviews that note how I reviewed 300 films reaaly well, but forgot one.  I mean...nobody's perfect, you know?  Gee whiz!   I don't want to be a book reviewer who can't see the forest through the trees like that.  

However,  -- that caveat established -- I must point out that Horror Noir does not mention or review the film I consider to be the greatest horror noir of the 1990s, and one made by the film noir's greatest modern director, Roman Polanski. 

I'm talking about 1999's The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp.  That work of supreme intelligence and depth co-opts the highest quality of the film noir (the outward "investigation" leading to an inner discovery about the nature of self) to imply a world beyond our mortal perception; a world of authentic evil.  The Polanski film also features a great, infinitely ambiguous ending which was perfect for the Y2K times in which the film was crafted.

Beside that gap in the discourse, however, Meehan ably and intelligently surveys over 110 horror noirs (from Alias Nick Beal [1949] to The X-Files I Want to Believe [2008]) here.  And to his credit, does a fantastic job discussing and analyzing Polanksi's famous Rosemary's Baby (1968) and the noir elements it co-opts so successfully.

Meehan ends his nearly-three-hundred page film survey with the thought that film's evil twins -- horror and noir -- will take new shapes in the years and decades to come.  If so, I hope Meehan will continue to document these evolutions and revolutions, and perhaps even tackle another intriguing subject he mentions tangentially in the text: Western Noir.

Paul Meehan's Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet  is now available at Amazon.com and also through the publisher, McFarland, here.  I can recommend the latest Meehan book without reservation, and also suggest you pick up a copy of Meehan's groundbreaking Tech Noir.

All I Want for Retro-Christmas Countdown (7 Days Left...): Rock Lords

Friday, December 17, 2010

Destiny Destroyed: SGU Gets the Axe.


Sources all over the next are reporting that Stargate: Universe (SGU) has been cancelled.  The sci-fi series' final ten episodes will air on the Sy Fy Channel in Spring of 2011.

I must admit, I'm deeply bummed about this news.  I caught up with the first season of SGU on Netflix and found it not merely enjoyable, but actually the most daring, entertaining, and serious-minded of the entire, long-lived Stargate franchise. 

Here's the word:

Syfy will end its original action-adventure series Stargate Universe when the show returns with the final 10 episodes of its second season in the Spring of 2011. The Stargate franchise — consisting of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe — has aired on Syfy since 2002. Syfy has a slate of new scripted projects lined up for 2011 including the series premiere of Being Human on January 17, the recently green lit one-hour drama series Alphas and the much anticipated, Battlestar prequel pilot movie, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. Warehouse 13, Eureka & Haven will also return w/new seasons next year


And here's some of my original review of the series from June of this year:

Stargate Universe is a bit edgier, somewhat more serious in intent, and far more mysterious than what I've seen of the other Stargate series. It showcases flawed but interesting human characters instead of gun-toting, romanticized ideals. It's also -- at least from what I've seen -- not as overtly militarized in bent. There are still several military characters involved in the drama, but the show isn't all guns and salutes. Not hardly.

SGU dramatizes a tale of disaster and survival. A group of officers, scientists and technicians from Earth are unexpectedly forced to abandon an off-world base called Icarus following a surprise attack on the installation.

But when the group evacuates through a star gate, it returns not to Earth, but lands bumpily aboard a damaged, colossal spaceship traveling at faster-than-light velocities towards the end of the universe itself.

The man responsible for this selection of destination is the inscrutable Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who has been working for years to puzzle out the last "chevron" on the Stargate technology in hopes of discovering more about the race that constructed it: The Ancients.

So, a group of about fifty or so people -- the "wrong people" -- according to Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) are now trapped together aboard this inhospitable vessel named Destiny. In the opening three-part episode, "Air," life-support power fails and the crew is forced to scour a desert planet for resources needed to repair the C02 scrubbers. In the second episode, "Darkness," the ship's power fails completely, and in the third, "Light," Destiny becomes trapped on an apparent collision course with an alien star. A lottery is held to see which fifteen people will board an escape shuttle, and who will be forced to remain aboard the ship as it plummets towards the sun...

Outside of the Stargate franchise, SGU is heir to a rich cinematic and television legacy of space adventuring. The series' impressive opening shot -- of the huge Destiny gliding through the void -- puts the Empire's Star Destroyer and the inaugural shot of Star Wars [1977] -- to shame. Then, in the very next shot, the opener cuts to a Ridley Scott-esque tour of quiescent interior corridors, evoking the Nostromo in Alien (1979).

The notion of boarding and deciphering a starship of alien construction reminds me of the Liberator and Terry Nation's Blake's 7. And the scenario of men and women trapped on an out-of-control "vessel" unable to control speed or trajectory made me think of Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha. For good measure, the opener also throws in some (largely unnecessary) character flashbacks that evoke the early years of Lost (2004-2010).

And did I mention that the soundtrack boasts the Far Eastern, melancholy feel of Firefly?

Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula. For one thing, the series eschews the horrible techno-babble that scuttled late-era Star Trek (Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise).

On those 1990s programs (which have not aged well, for the most part...), the resolution of the crisis of the week always involved a simple re-shuffling of a deck of cards. Let's re-modulate the power array to shoot a graviton pulse at this tertiary domain of subspace that will seal the space/time rift blah blah blah.

Somehow, no matter what hand the crew of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was dealt, it always managed to pull an ace from that deck. Once or twice of course, this was fine but after a while, the cumulative effect was actually a negative statement about humanity and the supposedly-heroic Starfleet characters. They had no real resourcefulness or ingenuity of their own but they did have great technology, and simply by reshuffling the same deck every week, they could survive and flourish in the universe.

My hero and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne -- who served as story editor on the first year of Space: 1999 -- once compared late era Trek and Space: 1999 in the following way. He said that shows like Next Gen and Voyager assumed the characters already had everything they needed to succeed, whereas Space: 1999 adopted the perspective that the characters did not already have what they needed to survive.

Which approach do you think is inherently more dramatic?

And indeed, this is reason why so many episodes of Next Gen, Voyager and Enterprise feel so rote. The sense of danger is missing. In drama, when characters have everything that they need (even when separated from home base by a quadrant or two...), space adventuring just becomes a workaday job. And besides, the holodeck is open all night...

Refreshingly, SGU revives the earlier template, and adopts the perspective that the characters don't have the resources or know-how they need to survive, or, at the very least, don't yet understand how to master the technology that would permit survival to be anything approaching easy.

In other words, the Destiny may provide for all, but the crew -- again, the "wrong people" -- don't necessarily have the skill set to figure it all out. This is Johnny Byrne's Space:1999 principle applied, and applied well.

What I admire about SGU is that, even in these early shows, there's a lot of trial and error on display, a lot of attempts that go nowhere. At one crisis point in "Darkness," I was suddenly, out-of-the-blue, reminded of the Apollo 13 incident in 1970...of people working in space to solve pressing (nay, urgent...) problems with ingenuity, grace, available resources, and luck. The series really captures this vibe well. It's something about the danger of space travel and human inspiration intertwined...and it works. It's a concept that in large part, modern space adventure series have abandoned, and it's nice to see it back at the forefront of the medium.

SGU also gets something else right, and this is crucial. By and large, SGU allows the viewer to scan the drama for subtext rather than spelling out that subtext as, well, actual text.

This was always my primary concern with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica [2005-2009]. Not that the producers seemed more interested in telling stories about Abu Ghraib, September 11th, Al Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions and late 20th century East/West perceptions of God than tales of survival in hostile galaxy, but that they did so in such an on-the-nose, obvious fashion.

By contrast, the early episodes of SGU feature some vivid human drama, but the series isn't crushingly self-important or pretentious in the way that Galactica often was. It doesn't spoon-feed you with obvious analogs for current events. It doesn't pat viewers on the back for knowing that "go frak yourself" is the same as Dick Cheney's famous "go fuck yourself." I mean, we get it, right?

Also, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was alarmingly lazy about creating the universe around itts human characters. On alien planets half-way across the universe, people drove late 20th century, American-produced Humvees. This was basically an admission on the part of the producers that television can't believably do "sci fi" -- a theorem I disagree vehemently with -- and so no real imagination was afforded for the look or design of the show; to create believable alien vistas, technology or cultures. The only civilizations in all of Battlestar Galactica were humans and their creation, the human-looking Cylons.

I just find that idea...immensely depressing. Kind of like us getting to outer space and discovering that in all the cosmos, in all the stars, there are just Liberals and Conservatives, or just Muslims and Christians. As a sci-fi series taking place in the great unknown, Battlestar Galactica could dream nothing better for mankind than perpetual divisiveness and partisanship. Of course, this is an entirely valid philosophy and approach...just not one that engaged me, personally, I suppose. I could always watch the series as an adrenaline-inducing pressure cooker...it worked very well in that sense. But the new BSG had no curiosity about the universe itself.

I have enjoyed what I've seen so far of Stargate SGU because it remembers that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our human philosophy. The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine. The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny. Why was the ship built? Where is it headed? What was its mission?

Because I am so immersed in the history, details and minutiae of sci-fi television, I often check with my barometer, my wife, Kathryn to see how she registers new programs. She watched the first disc of SGU episodes with me and, if anything, enjoyed the show even more than I did. She's no pushover. On the contrary, because she is not strictly a "sci-fi" fan, Kathryn can be cutting, even brutal, in her assessments of these programs.

One of her observations I found especially trenchant. She noted that the actors in the series seemed to have been cast for their abilities, not for their looks or youth. There are few underwear models here, in other words. The characters aren't all "smoldering" hotties in their early twenties, but real people doing their best in a difficult environment. And again, being the "wrong people," being unprepared for this journey, makes them, by and large, interesting to follow. Young clings to his military training. Rush clings to his belief that he can learn everything on Destiny...if given time, Eli clings to his sense of humor, and so on.

You can never guess what right or wrong turns a series will take as it continues down the long years, but in these early episodes, SGU is promising, dramatic and much better than I expected it would be. It hasn't dropped any land mines that may come back to haunt it (like the identity of the fifth Cylon, or the invisible tree-shaking monsters), and instead seems focused on a good concept and, so far, solid scripts.

I appreciate SGU for the same reason that I've always enjoyed original Trek and Space:1999. It's a program about Humans -- us -- trying to make our way in the stars with danger -- and opportunity -- around every turn. In each adventure, human constitution and ingenuity gets put on the table. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it succeeds in completing the task at hand. But these are programs that tell us, in every hour, that despite the failures, the sky can still be the limit.

Anyway, I'm disappointed to lose SGU as an ongoing series. 
 
Personally, I think it's folly for Sy Fy to double-down on the shaky Galactica franchise after the dramatic failiure of the prequel Caprica to lure an audience.   Blood and Chrome better be exquisite, but here's the thing: even a weekly war drama with robots, set in the past of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, is going to have to contend with the (poor...) way the earlier series ended.  Why?  What kept a majority of fans going on BSG throughout the up-an-down, rocky network run was the tantalizing notion of a "Cylon plan" emerging, and the solution to a compelling mystery, or rather set of mysteries.  What are the Cylons doing (what's their strategy)? Who are they (in terms of the hidden final five)? How does this saga connect to us here on Earth? 
 
Those questions answered, Blood and Chrome can only give us young (meaning re-cast...) versions of familiar characters, and an enemy we already fully understand, and whose endgame we now know.  Which mean it's just going to be space warfare, evil robots, and sexy pilots, apparently.    Now, I've always appreciated the world-weariness and experience of Olmos' Commander Adama, who wore the years of battle and combat on his fatigued, wise face.  But I'm simply not that intrigued with the idea of seeing Adama as a young, inexperienced buck blowing up Toasters from his viper cockpit.  Good for a flashback or two, sure, but as the milieu for a new, ongoing series?

By pointed contrast, SGU revealed that the makers of another and familiar, long-lived franchise were intent on exploring new horizons; delving into new and daring territory rather than treading into the familiar, safe past of a universe that many believed was past its prime.   It's a shame that such creativity and experimentation wasn't rewarded, and that Sy Fy is putting all its eggs in the Galactica prequel basket instead.

 We hardly knew SGU, but down the long years to come, I suspect the program's reputation as a worthy science fiction series will only grow; especially as the pop culture descends further into the pit of unnecessary prequels of re-imaginations.

All I Want for Retro-Christmas Countdown (8 Days Left...): Micronauts!

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...