I’m neither a Steven Spielberg hater nor a Steven Spielberg apologist, but I can certainly say unequivocally the man is a craftsman. His precision and control with a massive film in his hands is the main reason I have little patience for Michael Bay auteurists – Spielberg proves blockbusters can be made well.
One of his most impressive films was one of his first. Duel, made for television in 1971 to such success it was granted a theatrical release, is a squeezing thriller that strips away everything but the essential elements. It knows what it is and doesn’t pack anything unnecessary around its sinewy frame.
An Everyman in a sedan is chased along a barren high desert highway by a murderous truck driver. There’s no reason the truck driver wants to kill him – sport, we presume. There is no motive. No one helps the driver of the car even though he calls the police. There is no face-to-face, man-to-man payoff scene between these two drivers. It’s a bare bones film that basks in its driver’s panicked isolation.
Beyond the psychological success of the film’s tension, it’s also a terrific car movie, a chase movie. The late sixties through the seventies were the glory days of car films. The cars were big and heavy and powerful and clumsy, and they were mechanical enough, machine enough, you could beat them up on screen and they could take it and still look sexy. The Plymouth Valiant used in the film might not be the first car that comes to mind when you think sexy, but I love these old Mopar A-bodies. It’s a fairly boring sedan, but the beauty of the cars from this era is how they film under duress. They’re heavy, and their suspensions are a little too soft, and the rubber compound in their tires is a little too stiff, so they match the broken, vulnerable, but tough qualities of the men and woman who drove them in all the great car films from that era. You can see their weight when they get thrown into a corner, their asses swinging around before the tires catch, their V8s breathing hard but mechanically simple enough to keep ticking when the car is getting beaten to bits. The sleek cars from the Speedy and Angry series or whatever it’s called can never pull this off for me.
This? This works:
And the truck. My god. The decade old Peterbilt used in the film is the mechanical image of menace. Spielberg famously auditioned a number of trucks before deciding on this one, and it’s perfect, all smoke and oil and rusty iron and bulldog muscle.
I dogged on Michael Bay, but there are a handful of Bay-like magic hour lens flares in Duel, as in these great shots of the two starring vehicles (and they really are the stars along side Dennis Weaver, the car driver, and the truck driver we never actually see) driving beside a freight train, giving a great juxtaposition of escalating iron power.
Duel isn’t an important movie, or a big movie. It’s as small as the hot car cabin our main character is trapped in as a he races to escape this truck driver who is trying to kill him for no apparent reason. He surrenders his calm, then his tight schedule, then the sanctity of his car’s body, and finally his belief he’s making it out of this contest alive. He’s pushed to the limits in his struggle against physics. It’s a theme Spielberg would explore again in films like Jaws and Jurassic Park, though those are much more fleshed out films than this. Duel is as lean as they come, which is what makes it so effective.
One more thing. The final scene is one in which just about any other director would have paid off – and insulted – his audience with a massive fireball explosion. Nothing explodes here. We’re given instead a nearly pornographic slow motion scene of vehicular destruction, a celebration of the mechanics and physics that have made the film so visceral in the first place. It’s a perfect ending.