Duel

It’s Flashback Friday!

This Week’s Flashback Movie….

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Release Date: November 13, 1971
Runtime: 90 minutes
Rating: PG
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Dennis Weaver; Jacqueline Scott; Eddie Firestone

This is the movie that put a young Steven Spielberg on the map. Originally produced for television (released theatrically in Europe), and based on a story by Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”; “Stir of Echoes”), it has all the Spielbergian trademarks for which he would later become one of our foremost auteurs.

On the surface, this sounds like the dumbest movie ever: man is menaced by a maniacal big rig, driven by a faceless driver. That’s essentially it. Yet in the hands of a young and eager Spielberg, it ends up being one of the most intense movies you’re likely to see, and holds up beautifully in the forty-plus years since it was initially released.

Dennis Weaver (“Gunsmoke”) plays David Mann, your average suburban every guy with a wife and two kids, travelling through the Californian desert on the way to a business meeting. Like so many of us at one time or another, he gets stuck on the highway behind an enormous truck, which emits noxious smoke and, generally, creates nothing but aggravation for poor David. But this is not your average aggravating big rig that won’t get out of your way…this thing seems to have a mind of its own. And it’s pissed!

Set entirely on the highway in the desert (somewhere outside of Bakersfield, CA), Spielberg makes the most of his sparse locations. He utilizes wide shots when necessary to evoke a sense of desolation, close ups in the car which put the audience in the driver’s seat with David, and shoots much of the driving sequences from the point of view of the head/tail light of David’s car, creating the sensation of “Oh Shit, that thing is going fast!” Similar subtle techniques Spielberg would continue to use throughout his career, from “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” and which makes his movies such visceral experiences. You are not whacked over the head with music cues (there is hardly any musical score to this film) or obvious visual indicators dictating the feeling you are supposed to have at that moment. Spielberg allows his scenes to build, permitting the audience to arrive at the desired emotional level on their own. The specific effect in “Duel” is that the further along in the story we get, the more tension we feel. It is truly a lean (movie only runs 90 minutes), mean, roller coaster ride.

Lots of touches that will become future hallmarks of Spielberg’s movies make appearances here. He is well known for his use of kids in his movies (“ET”; “Jurassic Park”; “Hook”) and not only does David have his two, but there is a scene with a school bus full of children. Spielberg has a superior, almost fatherly touch with kids and always produces such natural performances from them. He also likes to underline the everyday occurrences of life in suburbia (“Poltergeist”; “ET”), such as doing laundry or expecting the in-laws for dinner. This is another reason why he is such a successful director: not only are his movies master classes in storytelling, but they are relatable. The characters could be our next-door neighbors.

As for “Duel,” I highly recommend this little gem. It is a taut, streamlined, extremely tense exercise from a young director exhibiting extraordinary confidence so early in his career. Even if you are not a fan of Spielberg, it is still fun to see a now living legend director at the beginning of his journey.

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