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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pursuing a business man as he drives through the ultimate seventies landscape – a barren California desert – was originally made for television, but received such critical acclaim that it was eventually released in theaters.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.

CREDITS: DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG. WRITTEN BY RICHARD MATHESON. PHOTOGRAPHED BY JACK A. MARTA. EDITED BY FRANK MORRISS. MUSIC BY BILLY GOLDENBERG. WITH: DENNIS WEAVER, JACQUELINE SCOTT, LOU FRIZZELL, TIM HERBERT, LUCILLE BENSON, AMY DOUGLASS, ALEXANDER LOCKWOOD.

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June 12, 2013 Posted by | 1970s cinema, film directors, screenwriters, suspense films, TV movies | , , , , , , | 1 Comment