Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg

Duelweaver

Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars