Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Duel

Anyone who's ever watched more than one episode of a late night talk show has probably heard some Hollywood talent assuring an audience that has to applaud either way that "I always wanted to be a star" and backing up said assertion by subjecting us to the usual tales of appearing in school plays, church recitals and all the other methods of desperately attracting attention to oneself without much in the way of talent. Perhaps that speaks to some fundamental truth of stardom and its relation to actual acting, but that's a discussion for some other time. The truth is, sometimes you can tell what a child will become in adulthood based on the passion of youth, and few tykes pointed so resolutely, so inevitably, toward a career in the cinema as Steven Spielberg.

In 1958, at the tender age of 11, he made his first film for a Boy Scout merit badge, a story I endured ad nauseam as a young pup forced to participate in that ridiculous organization and its empty indoctrination of flag-waving patriotism -- never mind those godawful Hitler Youth costumes, the way their made-up flags carried the same significance as the American one or how the Scout salute is actually the Polish army salute. (The scoutmasters always neglected to mention that Spielberg eventually stopped supporting the organization over their discriminatory policies, but I'm getting seriously off-topic here). Throughout his teens, he made 8mm adventure films with his friends, rigging homemade effects in an attempt to explore his infatuation with his father's service in World War II.

When he was 16, Spielberg made his first feature film, Firelight, for a mere $500. Not only that, the damn thing ran nearly two and a half hours. As if some sort of cosmic proof of his destiny, Spielberg managed to get it shown in a theater near his mother's house in Phoenix, where, despite charging the 500 attendees a dollar, managed to return $501, thus earning his first film a profit.

After heading off to college at California State University, Long Beach after he failed to gain acceptance into USC's film school, Spielberg took Firelight around L.A. in an attempt to get work. Sadly, he gave the reels to a producer whose company soon went bankrupt, and he never saw the film again, thus preventing curious fans the chance to see if what the director could do as a kid; surviving clips and testimony suggest that he already knew his way around a tracking shot and his familiar motif of divorce, informed by Spielberg's lingering trauma over his parent's own (but more, oh so much more, on that later as we really move into his career). Of course, you can't keep a dedicated artist down, and Spielberg managed to get himself a job directing a short film, Amblin', and a deal with Universal that made him the youngest director to sign a long-term contract with a major studio.

Universal let him cut his teeth on television programs before signing him to direct four TV movies, which brings us, at long last, to Duel. The first of the four features, Duel performed so well that Universal added 15 minutes to the 74-minute production and screened it theatrically, thus making Duel Spielberg's official directorial debut. I come to Duel having seen only one other "murderous truck" film in my time, Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive, a hilariously bad attempt at translating the author's own material that seemed to place more effort into securing AC/DC for the soundtrack than any other aspect of its production. To prevent myself from watching Spielberg's debut, an intriguing moment in film history even if you hate the man -- if you do, then the idea of him making his mark with a film meant for television sneaking its way into theaters to make more money likely feeds into your view of him as much as its clear parallels with his first megahit Jaws will interest the director's followers -- is of course ludicrous, but, in my defense, you probably haven't seen Maximum Overdrive.

But Duel is indeed an impressive picture, the work of an artist who did not debut at the top of his craft but nevertheless displayed a firm grasp of filmmaking techniques and the importance of pacing. Its opening montage, of POV shots of a car speeding down the highway before morphing into objective tracking shots as the vehicle reaches the countryside, reveal a keen ability to introduce the main character, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), through actions, specifically involving his car. The identification of the character through his car -- giving us our first glimpse of the protagonist via the rear view mirror (his face) and the radio (hands adjusting the knob) -- serves as a foundation for a feature-length cat-and-mouse between Mann's Plymouth Valiant and a mysterious, obscenely filthy Peterbilt 281 tanker.

We never see the driver of the big rig, nothing more than a pair of boots walking past the undercarriage or an arm that signals for a pass. If I took the time to compare the film -- however distractingly -- to Maximum Overdrive, I must also mention another Stephen King creation, Christine. Like the titular demon car of King's novella, the truck is vaguely anthropomorphic, its headlights positioned on a long hood in such a way that it seems to have a face. It bears down on poor David with menace, at first toying with the man before gently escalating into a murderous chase interspersed with moments of quiet paranoia that allow us to catch our breath.

The other obvious comparison, of course, is with Jaws. The grimy truck, covered from hood to tire in muck, looks as if a dinosaur just climbed from a tar pit to hunt down its prey, and it even makes a sort of dino roar at the end (the same sound used for the shark's death "moan"). We never see the driver, and the truck itself exhibits the same ability to disappear as soon as it strikes that ol' Bruce pulled off, without the benefit of an ocean in which to hide. There's no logical method to explain its ability to pop out of view in the vast nothingness of the desert, and nothing in the way of a vague supernatural foundation à la John Carpenter, but young Spielberg pulls it off with gusto.

It's fascinating to watch his process this early. We know Spielberg primarily as a stylistic classicist, which makes the verité aspect of a number of hand-held shots all the more jarring (it popped up again in Saving Private Ryan and perhaps elsewhere, but I'm used to getting my Spielberg through cranes and dollies). He tosses in minor allusions to divorce with the opening audio -- a prank call on the radio involving the DJ posing as a henpecked husband calling the Census Bureau essentially to vent that he's not the head of his own household and that he wants freedom -- and of a brief phone call between David and his wife near the beginning where the two argue over the typical nonsense that always escalates because of how meaningless it is until it becomes an issue. His quick pacing manages to sustain interest for its 90 minutes, even when David spends time in diners or gas stations shrinking away from the world as he desperately attempts to collect himself. He gives us numerous long shots of the truck that reveal its size, yet for some reason I reacted every time he pulled the camera back far enough to capture the tanker in all its terrible glory.

Having not seen the original television cut, I would wager that most of the added footage consists of the diner scene, which I could have sworn built to a head before it finally did, and pieces of chases here and there. Yet the film never wears out its welcome; for all its simplicity -- I suspect with mounting dread that screenwriter Richard Mattheson (the sci-fi author who penned such works as I Am Legend) named his protagonist Mann to punnily comment on the framing of the story as a conflict between man(n) and machine -- Duel is a hell of a ride, and while it doesn't immediately point to a future involving Holocaust and slavery dramas, the seeds for his status as the king of mass entertainment are sown in this low-budget crowd-pleaser.


  1. I saw this movie a few times, but like, 6 years ago. I like suspence movies(do I dare to assume that that's what this mostly is?), but not when I've already seen it once. Kinda ruins it for me. And I hate mysteries that don't get resolved.

    I can understand them from a certain view, but they writer could've at least given the guy a MOTIVATION for wanting to kill Mann. And what was with all the pointless shots of showing the guy's hands, and thus showing that he's white and probably human? Couldn't they've had him wear a mysterious suit or something that could really give the viewer an imaginative guess on who the guy is, like maybe he's a UFO, or he's from the future and has to stop Mann from doing something.

    I'm just saying; If the guy is human, what's the point of not showing what he looks like? It's one thing to give the man a motivation that the audience never finds out, but if we know that he's not an alien, what's the point of not seeing him? Movies like these just get to the point to where everyone thinks that the writers are relying too much on un-resolved mysterys to add suspense.

  2. Duel is the best television movie ever made. It feels as if it were directed by a child prodigy playing around with a camera, and, as you say, Spielberg didn't really go back to using handheld cameras so brilliantly until, at least, Saving Private Ryan.

    Though I haven't seen as much of his performances as I would like to, I doubt there's a better Dennis Weaver performance out there. If the sex-crazed hotel clerk in Touch of Evil had grown up to be family man on the road, he would have been David Mann. He'd harass fat guys in diners, run panicked into phone booths, and scream at monster trucks that (he claims) are trying to mow him down. "YOU CAN'T BEAT ME ON THE GRADE!!!!!"

    About the extra footage added for the theatrical release, I learn from George Perry's "Close-Up" biography on Spielberg that some of the new editions not present in the American TV cut include Mann listening to the radio phone-in and the scene where he's calling his wife. The voiceover narration at the beginning was the only thing put into the newer cut against Spielberg's wishes.

    If you ask me, the only new footage that's all that necessary is the school bus scene. Apparently it wasn't in the TV cut. Which is great, because I love that scene and how the truck suspends all hostilities against Mann in order to help the kids out- so that Mann can be framed as the TRUE insane person, in front of all those children. "You're crazy, mister!" God I wanted to throttle that kid.

    I was fortunate enough to catch Amblin' back when it was on YouTube, but then it was taken down. That's a shame because it's such a remarkable little film with touching subtlety and zero dialogue; for some reason, Spielberg has tried to suppress it and has dismissed it as an "extended Pepsi commercial", to which I highly disagree. Maybe if he were to release it to the general public, it would silence his fiercest and most biased critics. I'm looking at you, J. Hoberman.

  3. Another fun fact about Duel: it was a huge hit when released in theaters over in England, albeit yielding totally different kinds of praise.

    There's a funny story (I'm quoting from Joseph McBride's 1995 Spielberg biography) about how some of the British intellectuals in the audience started asking Spielberg to verify their theories that the film was full of Marxist symbolism and that the truck was supposed to represent "the establishment". And when Spielberg denied this, a couple people walked out on him in disappointment.

    Btw, speaking as a former Boy Scout, nice rant there at the beginning :)

  4. I recently read David Gilmour's memoir "The Film Club," and in it he mentions that "Duel" shows -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- the fearlessness of Steven Spielberg, his willingness to take chances as a new director that most newcomers wouldn't think of attempting. After reading that and your review, I'll have to see "Duel" for myself.

  5. M. Carter @ the Movies:

    I wouldn't say that. I think there's hundreds of newcomers out there that are very daring and want to make a good movie, and most of them never get any attention or success, mainly because of that. Steven just got lucky, and everyone treats him like the king of the world as if he's the only person that deserves it.

  6. Spencer,

    You're worrying about the wrongs sorts of things that one needs to ponder over when critiquing a film like Duel. This film is Hitchcockian in the most classic sense of the word. The identity of the truck driver is merely a "MacGuffin". It means nothing. It's just a plot device, just as the vicious creatures in The Birds had no real reason for attacking the heroine. In Spielberg's film, both the truck and the truck driver simply serve as a means to give David Mann a run for his money.

    And I don't think it's fair to say that Spielberg "got lucky" with the film. He only got lucky in the sense that the executives at Universal recognized that he had a stylized flair that was too boundless for television, and a project like Duel was unquestionably just what he needed to expand his horizons. Also look at the way his technique in Duel evolved into the more emotional, less exuberant quality of The Sugarland Express, to which we should give credit for both Richard D. Zanuck and (the recently departed) David Brown for granting Spielberg the chance to be, in Pauline Kael's own words, "this generation's Howard Hawks".

  7. You can't worry about the wrong things. If you're more concerned with something than other people are, that's your choice. You assume I'm a fan of Hitchcock's "styles". The identity of an antagonist shouldn't be "nothing". A plot-device, sure, but not nothing. It's unfair to just create suspense out of pure nothing, just for suspence. Anyone can do that. Some people might just like suspense, but I, on the other hand, want more. Some meaning. And if you don't, then that's your way.

    He got lucky because he was one of the few good directors that was recognised and thus given the oppurtunity for this film. There's too many people out there that are overlooked, and there's nothing that can be done about it, but to call him one of the few directors that "took chances" is fairly stubborn.

  8. Plus, luck doesn't make you maybe the single most consistently successful director in modern American cinema. Yes, Michael Bay rakes in the millions every time, but do people continue to talk about Transformers the way they do Jaws or Saving Private Ryan or even something recent like Minority Report? Even if you don't like his films, writing him off as a hack (which is just flat-out wrong; even his most bitter critics must acknowledge his aesthetic) who got lucky A) neglects that all those who make it need a bit of luck and that luck can't sustain a career that's bumping against its 50th anniversary.

  9. Nothing I've said is flat-out wrong. I haven't called him a hack. I'm saying that I personally believe that back in the days(yes, even 50 years ago) there were hundreds of wanabee directors that would be just as good, if not better, than Steven, and it wasn't for a lack of trying that they didn't get the spotlight. And yet, everyone's talking about Steven like he's the only person that would've been a great director 50 years ago, which is very insulting to all those who tried their hardest and never got the chance.

  10. If Steven didn't get his chances to make movies out of luck, what else is there besides skill and support, which I believe many, many other directors have but didn't get to show it anyway?

  11. You know what? I can abandone this topic before a volcanic-blog-eruption occurs, and it becomes war. I'm not good at war. No one seems to be getting my original point, and repeatedly making it won't help.

    I haven't seen this movie for a while, but I'm pointing out what my thoughts were and what I think a movie should have besides empty suspense. And everyone's defending Steven in belief that he didn't just get lucky. Well, he did, otherwise, you're saying that all those other guys that may've been as good as him didn't get the chance because they're lazy, which I don't believe. But, hey, I could be wrong.

  12. Again, didn't mean to cause a fuss.

  13. Well, if there was a "fuss" created, it may have been born out of all of these conspiracy theories and finger-pointing of yours that have been coming out of nowhere and going in all sorts of random directions. As Jake said, nobody was ever calling Spielberg "better than directors from 50 years ago".

    True, it's your opinion. All the same, when you said that you weren't a fan of Hitchcock's style, I felt tempted to ask: what is wrong with you??????

    Great job here, Jake. One more thing I wanted to ask: have you had any luck locating Spielberg's other TV movies? I've tried to find Something Evil (the film he made with Darren McGavin) and Savage (which he made with Martin Landau), but neither is available on DVD.

  14. No, I tried surfing the Web for any of his TV movies, Amblin' and clips of Firelight and found only a minute clip of Firelight.