Sunday, July 13, 2008

Film #61: Duel

Fooling around on IGoogle's video collection, I recently found the full version of Steven Spielberg's 1971 TV movie Duel. Rewatching it again, I'm struck even more inescapably by how different it is from most Spielberg efforts--there's no John Williams music, no Michael Kahn editing, and the dust-splattered photography has a strictly TV-quality of realism to it. Of course, on the other hand, it's often quite Spielbergian, especially when secretively dealing with its one-of-a-kind villain.
Duel stars Dennis Weaver (then taking a break from his TV series McCloud) as David Mann, an everyman motorist with a failing marriage and a pressurized job situation who, while on a long desert drive, is suddenly terrorized by a rusted-out, demonic 18-wheeler truck. Who's the driver? A maniac? A force of nature? We never see him (well, maybe we see his boots, in one of those Spielberg touches I mentioned). Why is he mad at David Mann? We never find out (though we sense the driver finds Mann's general snootiness irritating). We're left with no answers, really. It's a weird, creepy movie, and distinctly 1970s-flavored (it was ripped off, by the way, in 1977 when James Brolin starred in The Car, one of the most hilariously bad "bad movies" ever made).

I sense that this evil machine has been placed in David Mann's way because it's the only way this guy will ever grow some balls. At least, that's what the Richard Matheson screenplay (based on his novel) leads me to conclude. Because Mann--get it?--is a severely castrated individual--his harried wife has no patience with him, and workwise he's always behind the eight ball. He's wound up tight from the first moment we see his car pulling out of his driveway (in a great credits sequence scored with only ancient 70s radio tracks). So his battle with the truck--with which he plays a lowly, confused victim numerous times--begs to be seen as a rite-of-passage for his long-delayed manhood.

Following Mann's 1970 orange Plymouth Duster through this hell is a taut, unsentimental experience. Matheson's screenplay is minimal and refreshing (a little different from some of those Twilight Zone episodes he's rightfully famous for). Frank Morriss' editing has a razor-edged crispness about it that totally screams for attention (he won an Emmy for his efforts, and later went on to edit such movies as Romancing the Stone and Inside Moves). And the sound, as usual for a Spielberg movie, is extremely evocative; creaking metal, roaring engines, flying sand, screeching tires and pained groans. This movie was such a massive ratings-getter on TV that it even got a rare theatrical release from Universal (other than Brian's Song and The Great Santini, it's the only other movie that I remember to achieve that status) and certainly led to Spielberg getting the Jaws assignment in 1974 (Duel often resembles Jaws in its creeping dread). In a Psycho/shower sort of way, it's unfairly affected my view of truck drivers ever since I saw it when I was eight or so, and I bet it had a similar effect on many other viewers. (What's more frightening that being beside on of those monster 18-wheelers on the highway? They literally blow you off the road!)

At any rate, if you want to see how one of our leading filmmakers cut his teeth, click below to see Duel in its full glory!!! Check it out.

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