Spielberg Film-by-Film: Duel (1971)



Third in a series

Late one night, long ago, I was driving my old Honda CRX 2-seater into Detroit to see a girl. I was exhausted, and I blasted the radio to stay awake. Suddenly, a semi rig was on my rear bumper. Then another pulled up on my left. They drove me toward another in front of me. I had no idea what to do. We all kept getting faster, until my speedometer was over 90. I remember my hands gripping the wheel, my jackhammer heartbeat, the cold sweat on the back of my neck. Then it was over and the trucks dispersed. Duel brought all of that back in a rush; it’s a thriller about road rage, which is a metaphor for helplessness in the modern world.

Duel is Steven Spielberg’s first, second, or third full-length release, depending on who’s counting. It was his second TV movie, after LA 2017 (1971 – for the TV series The Name of the Game). It was his third “full-length” movie, vaguely meaning something over 75 minutes or so (his first was Firelight, financed by his father and shown only once, in 1963, in his Phoenix hometown cinema.) Duel was expanded from its original 74-minute TV runtime to 90 minutes and shown in theaters; it was produced by Universal as part of Spielberg’s contract; it was big time. So I’m calling it Spielberg’s first commercial movie.

Duel is a fantastic good time. It’s about a truck that terrorizes a hapless car on a two-lane road in the desert. That’s it – you might wonder how the writer (Richard Matheson) and director fill an entire movie; don’t worry. It’s the kind of film that begins careers more effectively than finishing them – the concept is narrow and gives a young director the chance to show his stuff; experienced filmmakers might be accused of slumming with this kind of genre exercise. It opens on a black screen, just the the sound of an engine starting. For the first shots we seem to be on the hood of the car – not looking through a windshield. We drive through traffic, then head out of town. As the opening credits finish, we finally get a stationary shot from the side of the road – reminiscent of Amblin’, Spielberg’s earlier short film.

Dennis Weaver plays the driver, David Mann.  He’s a mustachioed Burt Reynolds stand-in, although Spielberg apparently wanted Weaver because of his performance in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  Mann turns on the radio – it’s meaningless talk show chatter, life-as-we-know-it kind of stuff.  One male caller talks about how he cooks and cleans while his wife works – he is embarrassed.  Emasculation turns out to be the movie’s primary theme.  Throughout, Spielberg plays with images of masculinity – the protagonist’s car is a red Plymouth Valiant, which often looks quite dainty on the road.  The hero’s wardrobe also emasculates him – at one point his outfit is contrasted against a diner full of “real men,” one of whom beats him.  He even has a brief phone call with his wife, who criticizes him for not defending her honor when another man hit on her the night before (Matheson is just piling on at that point.)

About five minutes into the film, the director announces himself with a brilliant tracking shot – the camera travels from the Valiant around to the front of the giant (masculine) truck, as both move down the highway. The truck is completely characterized in that one shot – it spews black smoke, it is rusty and dented, it has several license plates mounted like trophies on its front bumper; it is a hunter, the villain. Spielberg never shows us the driver. We see a figure behind the wheel, but the actual person is never revealed. The character is the truck itself. The Duel of the title is unspoken, yet set from that first moment. Modern man has fallen short (among other failings, he drives a Plymouth Valiant.) Mann must be punished.

Amblin’ had no dialogue – we sense Spielberg wanted to work the same trick in Duel but somebody forced him to insert voiceovers, to better explain the protagonist’s mental state. Weaver doesn’t need the help; neither does Spielberg. Nothing about the plot is particularly surprising, except the images themselves. As long as the film is outside it feels limitless – the camera is free to roam like no other director had yet imagined. In some ways Duel is a Western, with the lens freed to run among the horses. (The version I saw was the theatrical release, framed for a movie screen with something like a 1.85:1 aperture. TV apertures in the 1970s were closer to square. Duel looks like it was planned as widescreen all along – it’s hard to imagine the compositions cropped at the sides to fit a TV.)

When the action shifts inside, for just a few scenes, it feels like TV again – actors are shot from slightly below, centered in the frame.  Spielberg seems to need the freedom to move the camera, and to frame the many elements of his shots.  He thinks in terms of movement – the objects on screen shift as the camera tracks, always with a beginning, middle and end for each “thought.”  He loves using iconic images of everyday things like school buses and cars and trucks, then twisting them – he relishes exploiting the underlying savagery of the ordinary. During one scene, Mann stops to help a school bus. The kids make faces out the windows, at first innocently and then perhaps maliciously (it’s not entirely clear.) In another scene, he’s almost run over by his nemesis, as he tries to call the police from a phone booth. The truck destroys several tanks holding spiders and snakes – a tarantula ends up on Weaver’s pants, and the despondent proprietress holds a giant snake as the truck drives away. The details are perfectly conceived and placed; they’re a riot.

Billy Goldenberg’s music echoes Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock – it uses slashing strings and percussion to build tension. (Hitchcock never moved his camera the way Spielberg does, though.) The editing, by Frank Morriss, is wonderful – it flows directly from the images, as if wired to Spielberg’s brain. Likewise, Jack A. Marta’s cinematography is crisp, especially in using color to make the action clear. Edwin S. Hall’s and Jerry Christian’s sound work is exemplary – they cleverly incorporate animal noises to anthropomorphize the truck.

So here’s my gripe. Just one complaint. The truck has one legible word on it, and it’s huge: FLAMMABLE. We know the truck is going to explode at some point. Even at the end (which comes just a bit too soon – once you realize Spielberg’s got the concept nailed you stop wondering how he’s going to fill the running time) you still wait for it, long after it should have happened. And then it doesn’t. I don’t know why he skipped the money shot. I also don’t know why the truck’s driver-side door was open at the very end (it was apparently a decision by the stunt-driver, but it needlessly suggests the driver got away.) The film closes with another Amblin’ echo, with the hero haloed by the setting sun (the redemption of Mann?) But I wanted that fiery payoff. I wanted it for all of us, emasculated by those big macho trucks that show up out of nowhere in the middle of the night. Damn, Mann.

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Next: The Sugarland Express (1974)