Duel: Menace, not Meaning

Last year, I mentioned Steven Spielberg’s Duel in another post I was doing and said, ” How many times can a filmmaker claim to have made a movie in which it could be argued the entire plot structure is merely a metaphorical underpinning to allow the lead character to revolt against his own demons?  And there’s a resolution but no real ending and never an explanation.  If Spielberg ever achieved anything close to true, abstract art, Duel was it.”   And while many claim Duel was a precursor to Jaws, a kind of test model for Spielberg, it’s really so much more, thanks to a brilliant story design by Richard Matheson and a supremely good performance by Dennis Weaver.

Duel 02

For starters, to make the comparison accurate, the story of Jaws would have entailed the shark relentlessly pursuing Chief Brody and Chief Brody alone.  When he gets in the water, the shark pursues him and never, ever pursues anyone else.  True, there are similarities in the relentlessness of the adversary and some of the stylistic conventions that Spielberg used, but Duel is really a movie about one man, the knowingly named David Mann (Weaver), under the impression that the world has singled him out for punishment.   It’s not about logic (“why doesn’t Mann just stop driving?”) or reason it’s about David Mann feeling the world closing in on him and damned if he knows why.

Duel begins with several minutes of POV shots from the front of David Mann’s car.  We see his garage first, as he backs out, then his house and the street where he lives and, in time, the downtown area.  We hear nothing except the mindless banter of talk radio.  This transitions into urban highway and eventually becomes single lane dusty desert highway.  Tellingly, we first see the car as David exits off the main highway and onto the desert road.  Once he’s made the choice of veering off the main road for the one less traveled, he’s taken control of his destiny in a way that will surely make all the difference.

It’s not long on his journey that he comes upon a rusty, dirty 18 wheeler with an engine that sounds like a menacing roar from a mythological monster and an exhaust that spews like poisonous gas into David’s car.   This being a single lane highway, David can either stay behind the slow moving behemoth or pass and get to his meeting.  Naturally, he opts to pass and does so easily.  But soon, we see the truck fast approaching in David’s rear view mirror and within seconds, it roars past David at top speeds, passing him back and getting in front of him once more.  That’s when he slows to a crawl, forcing David to suck in his exhaust again.  David quickly notes this outrageously jerky move and attempts to pass again.  This goes back and forth until things start to escalate when the truck driver waves David to pass into oncoming traffic while at other times swerving to keep him from getting around.  David finally does pass and the truck quickly shows how fast it’s capable of going.  As David pushes his car to its limits, the truck relentlessly and ruthlessly terrorizes David from behind.

Much has been made of the apparent symbolism of Duel, locked into its time period during the nascent stages of feminism and male insecurity, with David Mann feeling a distinct sense of lost masculinity.  He has a phone conversation with his wife about the night before when he failed to stand up for as, we are led to believe, a co-worker or client groped her.  There’s even a radio talk show in the beginning that reveals a caller’s concern that he’s no longer the head of his household.  Ah, these women and how they’re emasculating all these helpless men.

Duel 01

But if there’s anything to that by the numbers symbolism of the modern American impotent male (and given Matheson’s proclivity for symbolism during many of his scripts for The Twilight Zone, I don’t doubt that it’s all screamingly intentional) it’s that the machismo is what has to go, because it’s the real problem, not the impotence.  Obviously the truck has the virility that David’s pathetic little car lacks so when David fights it, he’s not trying to prove his manliness, just the opposite, he’s trying to prove how destructive and pointless all this manliness crap is.  David’s seeming impotence is the demon he must face and yet he doesn’t.  He embraces it and goes after the empty machismo instead.

Symbolism between truck and car, however, is better suited for a short story (like the one Matheson wrote that he based this movie on)  or Twilight Zone episodes as the basic gist of its meaning is discerned fairly quickly and obviously.    In other words, after a few moments of going down that road, you’ve exhausted all analytical possibilities.  That’s where Steven Spielberg comes in.  He’s the director that took the tale and turned it into a visceral nightmare instead.

Spielberg’s camera never tires of pointing out the differences between car and truck but does so for the purpose of menace, not meaning.   “Make of the story’s meaning what you will,” Spielberg appears to be saying, “I’m here to run the suspense and tension indicator off the dial.”  And so he does.

What makes Duel work are the shots, the editing and the looks of terror on Dennis Weaver’s face.  While Matheson was writing a story about one man facing down his demons, Spielberg was making a movie about relentless menace, both unknown and unexplained.  The two work together very well but Spielberg’s take enhances Matheson’s take much more than the other way around.  When Matheson’s take dominates, as when Weaver’s troubled thoughts are elicited via voiceover, the feeling is one of redundancy.  We, the audience, already know how he feels.   Spielberg’s take goes much further, it makes us feel what he feels without any words at all.   There are no lessons learned and the truck and its nameless, faceless driver never become anything more than the anonymous monsters they are.  They don’t need to.  All they need to do is exist, and pursue, and by their very nature, remind us all of how little in control we really are, of anything.   The duel may have a victor but it has no end.  Just a break in the action until the world needs to teach us, once again, another hard fought lesson in futility.

18 Responses Duel: Menace, not Meaning
Posted By jennifromrollamo : July 10, 2013 10:25 am

Love Duel and one of the few Movies of the Week I can recall actually watching. I get out of it the suspense and terror, not so much the macho male vs the immasculated one. As you succinctly point out, Spielberg’s direction was spot on, dialing up the suspense and Weaver gave a great performance. I do believe Duel is on Netflix Streaming currently.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : July 10, 2013 10:25 am

Love Duel and one of the few Movies of the Week I can recall actually watching. I get out of it the suspense and terror, not so much the macho male vs the immasculated one. As you succinctly point out, Spielberg’s direction was spot on, dialing up the suspense and Weaver gave a great performance. I do believe Duel is on Netflix Streaming currently.

Posted By robbushblog : July 10, 2013 1:13 pm

I haven’t seen this movie in far too long. I don’t remember the emasculating conversation parts, but the truck versus small car is fairly obvious. If it is on Netflix I will be watching it sometime this week.

Posted By Anonymous : July 10, 2013 2:12 pm

My mistake, robbushblog, as I checked Netflix Streaming and it wasn’t listed. I thought I saw it on there, perhaps I saw it on Amazon prime streaming. Sorry for the confusion and my old brain!

Posted By Anonymous : July 10, 2013 2:13 pm

I am sorry, Robbushblog, as I thought it was on Netflix Streaming but it wasn’t there when I rechecked this am.

Posted By Emgee : July 10, 2013 3:13 pm

Wonderful movie; i see it also as a David vs Goliath-story and a tale in which brain wins over brawn. Wonderful ending shots of Weaver staring into the darkness; we feel he’s been through a life-changing ordeal.

As to why Mann doesn’t just stop driving? I seem to remember he does try exactly that, only to have the truck waiting for him around the bend. But it’s been a while since i saw it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 10, 2013 3:28 pm

Rob, the emasculation stuff is pretty heavy-handed. First, on the radio, there’s a whole conversation a caller has about not being the head of the household anymore, his wife is. Then there’s the part where we learn Weaver didn’t stand up for his wife to another man. Then when a gas station attendant tells him, “you’re the boss” he replies, “Not at home.” The waitress in the diner is shot from a low angle and he’s shot from above to give her a clear dominating perspective (he’s all nervous and flustered, she’s composed and slightly judgmental). Etc, etc, etc. It’s not bad, it’s just that Spielberg wisely only spends as much time on it as Matheson puts in the script. That is, he doesn’t linger on it, add extra voice-over about it or provide flashbacks to the embarrassment with his wife. He just focuses on the truck/car dynamic.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 10, 2013 3:30 pm

Emgee, with the “why doesn’t he just stop driving” what I mean is, why not turn around and just go home? Head back to the main highway with thousands of drivers and policemen. He even says to himself several times that he will now probably miss the whole meeting so why bother? By a certain point though, he wants to win against that son of a bitch so turning back is no longer an option for him.

Posted By Emgee : July 10, 2013 4:28 pm

“why not turn around and just go home?” That reminds me of when i watched Rebecca with a friend and he said afterwards: “Why didn’t she just fire the housekeeper?”
She could have, but then it wouldn’t have been much of a movie.

Posted By robbushblog : July 10, 2013 4:58 pm

Greg- It’s just been a long time since I’ve seen it. I feel like that everyday though.

Posted By Gene : July 10, 2013 8:46 pm

Another film I have not seen yet. Spielberg is sometimes ridiculed unfairly. I am not as much of a fan of his flight of fancy films as much, but he is an incredible dramatist (The Color Purple, Munich) and I hope he continues with those films. Matheson truly left a great body of work, and I truly hope it survives and is appreciated.

Posted By Doug : July 10, 2013 11:19 pm

Should we judge Spielberg’s first movie against the rest of his body of work, or against other great director’s earliest works?
How does Duel compare with Kubrick’s or Scorcese’s first efforts?
I have Spielberg’s “1941″ sitting on my shelf but I haven’t yet watched it.
I can’t recall ever having seen ‘Duel’.

Posted By Christine in GA : July 11, 2013 8:44 pm

Doug, I wouldn’t bother with “1941″ if I were you. The only part I liked were the scenes with the dummy. I saw “Duel” when it was first on TV and now I have the DVD and I still love it and Dennis Weaver is very good in it. I’ve seen early Kubrick and Scorcese, but not sure if I’ve seen their first efforts, so it’s hard to compare plus their styles are different. “Mean Streets”, and early Scorcese, is considered a classic and I liked it but, personally, I loved Kubrick’s “The Killing” (early in his career)and it’s a favorite of mine partly because I adore Sterling Hayden and the awesome Jim Thompson wrote noir and crime stories like nobody’s business. If I had to choose among these three early efforts I would go with “The Killing”, hands down, but overall career-wise I like Scorsese’s movies better. Still, “Duel” holds up well and is very exciting. The credit goes to Matheson, Spielberg and Weaver.

Posted By Arthur : July 11, 2013 11:27 pm

Look closely at the climactic scene. When the fuel truck hits his car, Weaver grabs his briefcase and jumps out. Freeze that frame, and you will see that his name is stamped on the top of his briefcase, “David E. Mann.” Meaning that he is David and he is Everyman. And as Emgee notes the truck is Goliath.

Spielberg and Lucas were both followers of Prof. Joseph Campbell who wrote the book, A Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell taught that every culture has tales of young heroes who go off on an epic quest to conquer some external obstacle, only to eventually learn that the impediment was within themselves. In conquering the external foe, they master control of the self. “All knowledge is self knowledge.”

Towards the end, a few minutes before the climax, Weaver gets out of his car and fearlessly walks toward the truck,and it actually backs up! He gets back in his car and he is again pursued and is rammed by the truck.

As soon as Weaver jumps out, the car is knocked over the cliff and the truck follows too and ends up hanging off the ledge and Weaver rejoices. It is a fuel truck and its gasoline content comes dripping out. We expect it to explode, but it does not.

The film ends with Weaver sitting quietly and watching the truck just hanging there leaking fuel as the sun sets in a brilliant orange blaze of light symbolizing the explosion within Weaver’s consciousness. He solemnly realizes that he has indeed slain the terrible dragon, but the dragon was not the truck, the external foe, but the internal nemesis, his own fear. The truck was the concrete manifestation of his own psychic, spiritual and emotional disturbances.

Posted By swac44 : July 16, 2013 12:03 am

As far as 1941 goes, it’s a mess of a film, but with lots to enjoy among the dross. The miniature work and special effects are fantastic, there’s a great dance sequence, and a few of the jokes work. Plus, it’s got Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Murray Hamilton, Slim Pickens, Samuel Fuller and Dick Miller in it. Just don’t expect the world’s greatest wartime comedy spectacular when you watch it, and you might be able to enjoy it for the most part.

I’m more of a Sugarland Express man, myself…

Posted By Doug : July 16, 2013 12:40 am

swac, a while ago I picked up one of those ‘el cheapo’ 50 movie collections-and from the late 1970′s was a thing-and I’m being gracious here-a thing called, “Prime Time”. Black out jokes interspersed with a 25 cent plot about ‘someone’ taking over a TV channel and broadcasting filth and violence and items in poor taste. The government, headed by a near-Nixon President don’t have a clue how to stop the broadcast.
I mention this because one of the blackout scenes ‘starred’ Warren Oates as himself.
Kinky Friedman shows up and shares a song or two, which should give you an idea as to how ‘out there’ this…thing was.
Online detective work: This thing was also called “American Raspberry”
The high point for me was Kinky…possibly I should rephrase that-Friedman. Been a fan for quite awhile.

Posted By swac44 : July 16, 2013 9:01 am

Funny, I’ve seen a bunch of those ’70s gagfests, from the sublime (Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube) to the ridiculous (Loose Shoes, which at least has one fun Bill Murray bit in it, Tunnel Vision), but Prime Time (from the same director as Tunnel Vision, it turns out) is a new one on me. At least Tunnel Vision had some Firesign Theatre members, plus Howard Hesseman and a young Chevy Chase, involved. Prime Time sounds pretty desperate, but of course if I come across a copy I’ll have to watch it, even if just for Oates and Friedman.

Posted By Doug : July 16, 2013 3:43 pm

Swac, it also has what was probably Harry Shearer’s first gig, Murphy Dunne (Mister Fabulous from Blues Brothers), a cameo from Fred Dryer when he was still just a jock, and a number of familiar TV faces.
“Drive-In Movie Classics 50 Movie Pack”-so far there are few gems and mostly road apples, but it was cheap, so…

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