Monday, September 12, 2016

Duel (USA, 1971)

(Spoilers.) Whether one likes the big-budgeted mainstream compost Spielberg releases every other year is one thing, but what cannot be argued about the man (despite his ever-increasing number of filmic duds) is his understanding of how to make movies. Duel, his first TV film — one of two, if one excludes his Colombo episode, Murder by the Book (1971 / trailer), a rarely screened film-length episode of The Name of The Game (1968-71) entitled LA 2017 (1971 / fan-made trailer), and the even rarer movie-length failed pilot, Savage (1973 / music), before moving into the realm of theatrical releases with Sugerland Express in 1974 (trailer) — is probably the first of his projects to really give an idea of what was to come. For despite being written by the great Richard Matherson, the man responsible for such favorites as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956 / trailer), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961 / trailer), Die! Die! My Darling (1965 / trailer) and much, much, much more, the success of Duel is arguably due less to the oddly predictable script than to Spielberg's effective direction. (Be what it may, the possibility does exist that the predictability of the story has less to do with Matherson's script than the fact that so many versions of the basic "terrorizing trucker" — or "terrorizing car" — concept have been made over the years that the plot has almost become archetypical.)
Starring Denis Weaver, a man who began his acting career in as the ineffectual motel manager in Orson Welle's great Touch of Evil (1958 / trailer) and is primarily remembered for his 1970's TV persona Sam McCloud, Duel is a visual presentation of road rage gone wild, made years before the term itself was even invented. The nightmare of every car-owning American comes true when Weaver, as the John Doe-like average man named, well, David Mann, an unprepared, unsuspecting and somewhat unsympathetic and wimpy businessman driving a red Plymouth alone across California, is confronted with a murderous truck driver who, for no apparent reason, continuously tries to kill him. Weaver's nemesis takes on an almost unworldly aura in that the large diesel truck is a filthy, old timer of unidentified origin and because nothing more than the arm or cowboy boots of the driver are ever seen.
Aside from the fact that Weaver passes the truck early in the film, the truck driver has no apparent motive for his single-minded murderous intention. Is the driver simply an evil psycho? A killer from hell? Bored? The scene in which the truck helps to get a stranded busload full of obnoxious children started up, however, convincingly conveys that the attack against Weaver is purely personal.

Despite how unsympathetic Weaver is at the film's beginning, Spielberg does an excellent job at getting the viewer involved in his plight. By the end of Duel, one actually begins to cheer Weaver's character on when he finally is forced to kill or be killed. Alive and alone, tossing pebbles onto the wreckage of the truck and his Plymouth in the raven below him, there is no doubt left that this man's life will never again be the same. The milquetoast is now burnt hard.

True, there are a few small flaws. Billy Goldenberg's music is abysmal, but then, there must be a reason why the composer has seldom moved beyond TV scores. Luckily, the score is used sparingly. Likewise, more than once the viewer is left wondering why Weaver doesn't simply turn around and go home, but after a certain point it is obvious Weaver couldn't turn around if he wanted to. Other small flaws, like self-repairing sunglasses and a nonexistent, forever-unpaid cafe bill also pop up, but the overall thrill of the film easily lets such minuscule mistakes, so typical of rush-job TV movies, be overlooked.

An excellent B flick that doesn't overstay its welcome and keeps you at watching, Duel lives up to its reputation as a good movie ... and extremely excellent TV movie. Originally running at 74 minutes, the film was pumped up to 90 minutes via the addition of a few new scenes — such as when the trucker tries to push Dennis Weaver's car into a passing train and Weaver's phone call home — and released theatrically in Europe. Supposedly, the short story upon which the movie is based is in turn based on a true event that happened to Matherson himself some years previously, when a truck terrorized him on the way home from a golf game.
Now to one day find out whether his lesser-known TV horror movie, Something Evil [1972 / trailer], is any good.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...