Monday, 27 July 2015

Duel (1971)

Its hard to think Steven Spielberg was around directing movies as far back as 1971, dunno why, just is. Anyway this movie was originally a TV movie (only recently found out), a rather short TV movie naturally. But after this feature found much success on TV Spielberg was given more money to film more scenes for a longer cinematic cut. This alone shows the quality of Spielberg's work because you'd never guess there was extra filmed footage, it all blends so seamlessly.

The plot is based of a short story of the same name by Richard Matheson. It involves a middle aged man (David Mann) who is travelling on a business trip in California, although we never really find out what he does or where he's going (well he's a salesman but that's all we know). Its a strange unexplained situation really, he starts out from a city (unknown which), and drives for what seems like friggin' ages! We follow him through the city and far away, out into the Californian desert and beyond, Christ knows where he's going but he doesn't appear to have any baggage or anything.
At one point he comes across this dirty, rusty almost spooky tanker driven slowly by persons unknown. He passes the tanker legally as anybody would, but for some reason the driver takes some kind of offense to this and roars past Mann again, reverting back to driving slowly. Mann once again overtakes the truck and speeds away, the tanker driver blasts his horn in anger. From this point on Mann is terrorised by the mysterious tanker at every turn of his journey.

This movie used to be on TV a lot when I was a kid, a typical Boxing Day film. Its a thriller but in typically Spielbergian fashion, so not much swearing, if any, and what there is is tame, plus suspense that can be enjoyed by all. I mean lets be frank here, you're not gonna have much scary suspense about a tanker driver chasing a small red car in the middle of the day right. Yet this just shows how good Spielberg was/is, the film isn't scary no, but that shows how good the camera work and direction needed to be in order to convey the danger and atmosphere. The looming shots of the oily hulking tanker as it bears down on Mann's tiny car, creepy distance shots of it just waiting whilst chugging out black exhaust fumes, the way the tanker comes out of nowhere behind Mann's car, plus all the stand-off moments. It all looks so slick and nothing like most made for TV movies, many shots I think look very Hitchcock-esque in style, especially the moment where Mann gets out of his car and stands-off against the tanker from a distance.

The whole thing does seem a tad silly when you think about it logically though. Yes you can relate to it in a degree, I'm sure we've all had moments in car journeys when someone has pissed you off, maybe a touch of road rage, a touch of dangerous bumper riding, some choice language and visual signs etc...we've all been there. But watching this movie you can't help but dissect it just a bit. Lets be honest, Mann could quite easily avoid the tanker, all he had to do was go another route, or maybe stay overnight somewhere, or he could of rung the police much earlier at one of the more populated gas stations. When he does stop at a diner and discovers the tanker is there also, he could of waited by the tanker for the mysterious driver to confront him, maybe even let his tyres down or sabotaged the engine. After all by that point the crazy trucker had already rammed Mann's car so surely anyone would be straight onto the police. Also, later on when the insane tanker driver tries to ram Mann into an oncoming locomotive, he could clearly, quite easily drive off either to the left or the right, there was space. Suspension of disbelief is the order of the day here naturally.

Of course the character of Mann is suppose to be the everyday man, an average Joe, and he is, played brilliantly by Dennis Weaver. This isn't a big man, a man with lots of muscles, a cocky man, a smartass, he's a regular family man with a regular physique...and glasses (but also because in the early 70's big muscle men weren't the thing). Weaver plays this character perfectly, again very relatable for most of us. He's not someone who just jumps to conclusions and lunges in with his fists, he worries, he thinks about the situation, makes himself paranoid, and when he does do something its slow and reserved, he's apologetic and weak. Now I'm not saying that's how everyone is of course but I'm sure most levelheaded people would be more like this, well British people would.

What I find interesting is how similar this movie is to 'Jaws', bare with me here. The image of the huge lumbering yet fast dark tanker and the way it haunts the highway, hunting Mann like small prey, parallels Spielberg's famous fishy tale. There a huge lumbering shadowy (for the most part), yet fast shark haunts the waters of Amity Island, hunting human prey much smaller than itself. Both entities are virtually the same and almost shot the same by Spielberg, just watch how the tanker stalks Mann and springs up outta nowhere on some occasions, the horn akin to battle cry or animalistic roar. I love how on occasion we see the tanker just sitting there, its exhaust pumping out its black fumes almost as if it were a breathing creature, waiting to pounce. The shape of the Peterbilt  281 cab section and long hood with front headlights, also gives the tanker an obvious face.

The movie is nothing but intriguing from start to finish for sure. The mystery never really gets unraveled, we never see the tanker driver, we never get a reason for his madness, the tanker truck grill/bumper has a few license plates from various States on it which hints at other possible highway kills? or maybe the driver just made other lonesome car drivers crash or abandon their cars (not killing them), and he took the plates? Presumably the tanker driver has always done this on desolate stretches of highway and in barren areas otherwise he'd have the police on his tail.

Plus at the very end what exactly did Mann intend to do?? he drives his car at the tanker for what reason?? What does happen is only down to pure luck for Mann, he had no idea it was gonna go down the way it did. And then what?? he's in the middle of the wilderness, with no car, and he's injured...sooo does he die? Unfortunately its left open ended for you the viewer to make your own minds up, alluring but annoying too. Still its a riveting little story that is well acted, beautifully shot and thoroughly well crafted, typical Spielberg.