Posted by gregferrara on July 10, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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