Duel

Duel (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 09/07/09

Strangely, I’d never seen Duel, Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough television movie adapted from a novellette by the notable Richard Matheson.  It’s from a time when television movies occasionally rose to cinematic quality, and in fact, Duel was released as a feature film in Europe.  It’s quite nice to see Spielberg at work in his early phase, utilizing camera framings and managing tension and drama and action like an old pro.  It’s easy to see how this propelled his career and has remained among the notable films by Spielberg, even after decades of more well-known work.

The story is simple.  A man, Dennis Weaver, is driving the back road highways of California and runs afoul of a greasy, menacing semi truck, emblazoned with “flamable” and spewing black smoke.  Within a series of increasingly dangerous ploys, it becomes clear that this unseen driver is out to kill him, for no clear reason.  And isolated in the California backroads and mountains, it is simply man against murderous machine, a clean and simple scenario, and it’s taken to the hilt.

I reckon that this film set up a lot of the same tensions in Jaws (1975), though that film was less a one-on-one thriller, perhaps a less potentially philosophical sensibility.  From the opening sequence, which is sort of a car’s grill point-of-view, pulling out of the garage and moving along into traffic and onto the freeway, with only radio jabber to fill the audio as the credits roll, this is a much more interesting and sophisticated approach to film than the average Joe might have thrown in there.  You see mostly Spielberg’s mastery with action and tension, though it’s not without its lags, and a little of his ability to populate sequences with keenly honed and easily recognizable characters at the cafe, the snakehouse gas station, and even some of his tropes about American family life in the phone call with Weaver’s wife.  By this, his general characterization of people, and by further point, Americans.

The story is very much like a Twilight Zone episode, in a sense.  And Matheson was a key contributor to what that would signify anyways, having written several of the shows most notable episodes.  One weakness, perhaps, is Weaver’s internal dialogue, done in voiceover.  Always kind of a clunky device, but hard perhaps to separate from the story.  At the same time, it might have been even more interesting without hearing his fretting thoughts.

I also found it interesting to see the California hillsides and byways, which are now way more populated than they would have been in 1971, though the film probably exagerrates the isolation available on those backroads even then.  It’s something that strikes me at time to time, especially in looking at films from a previous era, how much more built up the world is than it was 30-50-70 years ago.  How isolation, a point of self against the world, loneliness, helplessness, is actually not nearly as easy to achieve as it once was.  The concept, much like a dream or nightmare, is much more concept than reality these days.

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