November 03, 2013

Spielberg's DUEL: They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore

"How can he go so fast?"
Living in Los Angeles taught me to love driving.  Since I knew I'd be spending a lot of time in my car, I wanted to get something totally reliable, as opposed to the used cars I had in Boston that always seemed to have something wrong with them.  So I bought a brand new 2006 Honda Civic and I named her Samantha after Natalie Portman's character in Garden State, a movie that hit me like a ton of bricks at the time.  Samantha and I have been through a lot, from late nights drives along the PCH, to battling our way through rush hour traffic in the heart of downtown L.A., to a cross-country drive across the southwest and all the way back to Boston.  Samantha rocks.  I'll be really sad to let her go when the time comes for Jamie and I to move out of the country.

Most of my friends can tell you that I've had my fair share of automotive scrapes over the years.  There was the time I hit the door frame while pulling into my garage, or the time I got my license plate torn off by a passing car while pulling out of a movie theater.  Once in high school a student debater from another school (who I had just judged in a round 30 minutes prior) ran in front of my car, flipped over the hood and twisted his leg.  He totally admitted it was his fault since I wasn't speeding and he was running across the street without paying attention.  It was all fine in the end, but it now referred to as "That Time Daley Ran Over A Braintree Debater."  I've had minor scratches, fender benders and I've even totaled my dad's SUV, but these were all honest accidents and most of them occurred when I was a teenager.

Road rage is a different beast all together, one that I've never truly experienced.  There was one time in L.A. that a guy thought I cut him off and when I pulled over to park about a block later, he actually parked behind me and got out to yell at me.  But I was polite and told him I didn't know what he was talking about and that if I had cut him off then I was sorry, so he immediately let it go and drove away.  I don't think he really wanted to fight me, he just needed to vent his anger and frustration.  The closest I've come to really dangerous "road rage" was a trip to Cape Cod, where the breakdown lane is frequently open to traffic to relieve congestion approaching the Bourne and Sagamore bridges.  But that's only true for certain stretches of road, and on this particular trip I was driving in the lane without realizing that I had passed out of the approved zone.  But the minivan in front of me knew it and the driver took it upon herself to act as the All High Guardian Of The Highway.  As I came up behind her, she drifted her car half into my lane, refusing to let me pass.  I hung back and eventually she pulled back into her lane, but as I sped up she did it again, and proceeded to repeat this maneuver two more times before violently swerving HER CAR FULL OF CHILDREN out into the lane and almost running us off the road.  I later realized that I had been driving in the wrong lane, but that hardly justified the other driver's actions, almost causing a multi-car collision on a crowded highway out of some misplaced sense of righteous indignation.  Either way, it was a pretty scary moment.

Thankfully she wasn't driving a tanker truck.

Of all the Spielberg movies I've never seen, Duel is easily the one I was most excited to watch, as it was technically his feature directing debut.  I say "technically" only because, while it got a theatrical release in Europe, here in the U.S. Duel played as a TV movie.  These days there's a lot of baggage that comes with movies for TV, but that wasn't always the case.  TV used to a place for burgeoning young talent to prove themselves before moving on to fry bigger theatrical fish, and you often saw some pretty significant late-term actors come around for these projects as well.  These days TV movies are usually tabloid related and involve actors who can't get work in real movies anymore.  I'm looking at you, Lindsay Lohan.

Duel is not just engrossing, it's inventive for its day and really feels like it's challenging the audience to get a bit weird.  That's little surprise considering there's a young and hungry Spielberg behind the camera and a story by the brilliant Richard Matheson, the man behind so many of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as that which would be later adapted into The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend.  In fact, more than anything else Duel feels like a great feature-length episode of The Twlight Zone.  The story follows David Mann (Dennis Weaver), an average guy driving through the desert highways of California on a sales trip who encounters a rusted behemoth of a truck whose mysterious driver quickly turns a long and tedious drive into a terrifying game of cat and mouse.  After Mann overtakes the truck on a single lane road, the truck roars up behind him and passes in front, only to slow down and box out Mann's red Valiant.  The two drivers jockey for position until the truck finally forces Mann off the road near a local diner.  Mann goes inside and tries to collect his wits, only to discover the truck parked outside.  The driver is clearly fucking with him, and after Mann assaults an innocent patron he believes to be his vehicular rival, the truck takes off down the road again.  Mann gets kicked out of the diner and resumes his journey, only to find the truck waiting for him a few miles down the road.  The game is on, and neither player will stop until someone's dead.

This is the pinnacle of effective simplicity.  The story starts out as a real slow burn; after a long initial stretch of POV driving, Mann encounters the truck and it's not immediately clear if the other driver is acting out of malice or if he's just a shitty driver with no regard for other denizens of the road.  For the first 25 minutes there's no score to hype up the tension, just Mann's radio and the rumble of the two engines.   By staying solely with Mann and never cutting away to the other driver, Spielberg puts us squarely in his shoes and appeals to those moments in our own lives when we've experienced a close call with some asshole behind the wheel, where you're sitting in your car thinking, "What the hell is this guy doing?  He's gonna kill someone!"  You have no idea what's happening in the other car or what's going through the driver's mind, you can only react to what's happening and try to avoid a collision.  Spielberg draws that tension out for as long as possible, until finally the truck tries to push the Valiant in front of a train and then almost runs over Mann in a phone booth (in which Spielberg's reflection is briefly visible) and suddenly all bets are off.  Now it's war.  And by not showing the driver, the truck itself becomes the villain, and it's an absolutely terrifying one with its streaks of old paint and the giant tanker hitched behind marked flammable, basically promising an explosion at some point.  By the time I was halfway through the movie I didn't even want to see the driver because that would have extinguished all the mystique.

Dennis Weaver is fantastic, especially considering how much of the movie he has to play by himself sitting alone in his car.  In fact, other than the wife with whom he has a quick phone call at the beginning, David Mann is the only character in the whole movie who actually has a name.  Weaver's got enough screen presence that he doesn't need to do much to relay exactly what he's feeling and thinking.  In fact, I wish it was even more minimal.  He doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, but he does have a whole voiceover internal monologue in the diner that I could have done without.  The movie was shot in only 12 days so it's no wonder that everything feels so stripped down and minimal, but it also never feels cheap or lacking in any way.

It's almost shocking to think that something this peculiar ever aired on primetime network television, and I wonder how it was received by audiences in 1971.  Obviously today's television landscape is very different, but I can't imagine a movie like Duel finding a place there today, even with the multitude of cable channels who are churning out their own original programming.  Well, I take that back.  A movie about a guy being hunted by a killer big rig truck would fit right in on SyFy, but that would be a very different movie.  I'm guessing there would be a mutant alligator blizzard involved.

Thanks to Jeff Schwartz for digging this out of the Emerson film library and inviting me over for pizza and whiskey!

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Title: Duel
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dennis Weaver, Jaqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell, Lucille Benson, Gene Dynarski
Year Of Release: 1971
Viewing Method: DVD