Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

DUEL (1971)

Steven Spielberg’s DUEL (1971) is a Western of sorts. If this is not obvious early on, it becomes clear in a climactic battle when David Mann (Dennis Weaver) fastens his car seat belt as though he were a Western hero strapping on a six-shooter. He even has the Western accent to go along with it. DUEL is also the study of someone very much in doubt about his own manhood, and the character’s last name is an ironic play on this fear. This amazing thriller about a crazed trucker pursuing a business man as he drives through the ultimate seventies landscape – a barren California desert – was originally made for television, but received such critical acclaim that it was eventually released in theaters. Along with the incredible suspense, Spielberg and screenwriter Richard Matheson pile layer upon layer of meaning onto this deceptively simple story, creating a film of rare depth – especially considering its humble TV origins.

The film begins with a subjective shot from David’s point of view as he backs his car out of the garage and drives down a suburban street. He makes his way through the city listening to mundane radio commercials about hemorrhoids, among other things, which occasionally break up the monotonous drone of a sports reporter. Heading out on a business trip, he soon finds his way to the desert and we get our first glimpse of David. He is an ordinary Joe – a seventies guy – and soon another seventies guy calls a radio talk show and complains about his census forms. The question “Are you the head of the family?” especially perplexes the man. He feels emasculated by his wife and it seems, the modern woman. We soon discover that David is facing an emasculation of his own. Castrated by his wife and his boring business man career, he will eventually find himself “back in the jungle” and longing for these things. And then, as he drives on, he encounters the truck. It is a rusty old oil tanker – a remnant of a bygone era – with the warning “Flammable” printed on the back in peeling paint. David makes the mistake of passing the truck, enraging its driver, whom we never see. This sets the stage for the movie long pursuit – the Duel. The truck follows David as he pulls into a gas station/laundry matt. It is here that we discover David is an extension of his car, as he removes his glasses to clean them, just as the attendant (Tim Herbert) cleans the windshield of his car. The truck driver does not exist outside of his truck and the ultimate expression of ones manhood is often his “wheels”. All we can see of the trucker is his hands on the steering wheel and on the one occasion when he does leave his truck , the audience (and David) can only see his macho cowboy boots.

When David brushes off the attendant’s advice to replace his radiator hose, the man responds with “You’re the boss.” “Not in my house, I’m not!” is David’s response. Later as he talks with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) on a pay phone, a woman enters with her laundry. She opens the washing machine, framing David in the door’s window. It is a perfect image of a whipped man. The conversation here is important as well, as David apologizes to his wife for not confronting a man who groped her at a party the night before. David will have to do something – something big – to make up for his lapse of manliness.

Back on the road, after he realizes the trucker’s murderous intent, David stupidly eggs him on by attempting to pass him again. After one successful maneuver, David hoots like a little kid, rejoicing while slapping his steering wheel. It is a matter of pride for his bruised male ego. When we get a good look at the side of David’s car, we see that it is a Valiant. Part cowboy, part knight in shinning armor, David will eventually redeem himself.

The truck, as it happens, is not only an extension of its driver but may also serve as an extension of David’s psyche – the incarnation of some childhood nightmare – like Moby Dick to Captain Ahab. The rusted orange color of the tanker matches the orange color of David’s car. Spielberg often gives us close-ups of the truck’s headlights and corresponding close-ups of Davids eyes, peering out from behind tinted glasses.

There is a third character amongst all this auto erotica – a freight train that pops up throughout the film. Like the trucker, the engineer is never shown, and he is blissfully unaware of the horror taking place. The most frightening use of this third character has the truck attempting to ram David’s car into the path of the train as David is stopped at a railroad crossing. Later, the truck blows its horn in recognition of the locomotive, which returns the gesture with a friendly blast of its own horn.

The final showdown is like a Marshal Dillon shoot out. After a harrowing ride to the summit of a hill with his radiator hose busted (the truck closing in), David comes up with a brilliant plan: He jams his brief case against the gas pedal causing his nearly destroyed car to ram the truck head on after he has jumped clear. In a fiery ball of flames the truck careens off a cliff into the ravine below. David has used a symbol of his emasculation to take down his foe. The truck tumbles in slow motion – groaning and weeping all the way to the bottom. Four years later Spielberg would revisit this technique in the final shots of the exploded shark in JAWS as it makes its way to the bottom of the ocean.

Along with the layers of meaning, Spielberg provides several bravura directorial touches: These include brilliant follow shots, fish eye lenses,”Dutch” angles, extensive use of subjective camera, and highly impressive shots with the camera circling the car and truck in in one swoop, as they make their way along the desert highway. There are jump cuts, a neat use of close-ups and a beautiful shot in which the camera curls down and across a cowboy’s boot to the tip of the toe. With all this taken into account, it is the school bus scene that is perhaps the most impressive of the film’s many highlights. Momentarily thinking himself free of the madman trucker, David stops to help a bus driver (Lou Frizzell) and children, whose bus has stalled. While struggling to give the bus a push with his car, he spies the truck in the distance, stopped in a darkened tunnel. As if possessed, the tanker’s headlights are suddenly illuminated like a pair of glowing demonic eyes. The truck is alive.

DUEL may well be Steven Spielberg’s most cinematic film. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is more harrowing because of its scenes of war carnage. SCHINDLER’S LIST is his most important, due to its subject matter. But this little TVer is his most visual, as well as one of his most multi-layered works. I envy those who have had the opportunity to see the film in a theater, where this most meticulously crafted master-piece has always belonged.



June 12, 2013 - Posted by | 1970s cinema, film directors, screenwriters, suspense films, TV movies | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. This is my favorite movie, and this is a pretty good article about it. And you’re right that the theme of emasculation plays a big role in the story, which is a subject I find very interesting. But you got one thing wrong, and I think it’s a pretty important point to the “moral” of the story.

    David Mann wasn’t “castrated” by his wife, as you stated. And I think it’s a pretty big mistake to assume that. Because it was his wife who was trying to get him to “man up” and defend her from a potential rapist, which he clearly failed to do. She is shown staying at home and being the housewife, wearing the dress and doing the housework, while her man is failing to live up to his end of the bargain, by failing to be her protector, which makes her feel rightly insecure, while her husband just tries to brush the whole thing off so he can go on living a lie. He is a pretender, not the “real man” his wife clearly wants him to be, and that he himself wishes he was. Only he’s too afraid to do the “heavy lifting” that’s required for the job that he signed up for when he married this kind of woman.

    And the guy on the radio about the census form was representing the epitome of a hypocritical male of his time, back during a time when gender roles were taken more seriously (for better and for worse) – a guy who admits he prefers to stay at home and stay out of the rat-race because he can’t handle the pressure, so he lets his wife do the bread-winning for the family instead, because apparently in their case she really is better at it than he is. But he resents her for it and doesn’t want her to get any of the credit for it, because he’s too embarrassed by it, even after 25 years of marriage. He’s afraid of what the neighbors think, instead of being “man” enough to tell them to mind their own business when try to to make fun of him for his chosen lifestyle and own what he is. And he accuses his wife of being the one who is pushing him down, when really he is the one who has willingly chosen to lay down himself. He also says he is afraid of his wife, and maybe she really is abusive, but apparently he’s too weak to file for a divorce if that’s the case. And in the end he chooses to lie on the form, out of spite, and say he is head of the household when clearly that isn’t true, because of his wounded pride, and to get back at his wife for being such a “whippo”, even after he said he was a man of conscience, which clearly isn’t true either. In the end he makes a “bitch move”, which only serves to further emasculate himself. And the most pathetic part is that he expects this to make him feel better, even though by his own admission he’s only willing to lie on the form as long as it doesn’t really matter what he puts down there, in which case it wouldn’t matter if he had told the truth either, a fact he fails to recognize.

    The radio caller, whether it was a prank caller or not, was indented as an exaggerated reflection of the protagonist, and what David Mann himself could eventually wind up turning into if he keeps heading down the same path and keeps shirking his duties as a husband to a wife who is clearly willing to play her role as the submissive in the relationship as long as he can successfully fulfill the dominant one. In the end the soft Mann is taught a valuable lesson of what it means to have to fight for your survival, to actually be a “real man” in the “real world”, which we can only hope will translate well into his domestic life when he finally makes it back home.

    Comment by JJ | July 17, 2016 | Reply

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