Saturday, September 22, 2012

Duel Personalities: "Duel" (1971)

Dennis Weaver stars in this taut made for television thriller written by Richard Matheson and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Weaver plays David Mann, a traveling salesman who leaves his house one morning fresh off a fight with his wife (Jacqueline Scott). He drives out to some isolated California highways, and passes a rusty gasoline truck on his way to a very important meeting. The truck passes him, he passes it, and general annoyance sets in. Soon, the truck begins menacing him on the highway, seemingly knowing his every move. Mann tries to stop for help, but the truck driver is enjoying the cat and mouse game, until the deadly conclusion.

This film put Steven Spielberg on the map, and with good reason. Many editors worked on the film, but Spielberg's mark is all over it. This is the old Spielberg, before "Jaws" and "Poltergeist," and before big special effects. What I mean to say is, the film was shot in two weeks, there is no John Williams score (just fabulous work by William Goldenberg), and Spielberg generates more suspense than some of Alfred Hitchcock's films.

"Duel" falls in the grand tradition of other highway suspense films like "Joy Ride," "Road Games," "The Hitcher," and "Breakdown." Unfortunately, it also falls into the same trap. The body of the film is more exciting than the finale. It is difficult to keep the tension ratcheted up for so long, and once in a while the film felt padded. However, there are now infamous scenes here, from an excruciating diner sequence (where Mann thinks one of the customers is the evil trucker) to the school bus scene (where Mann goes from perturbed to terrified in a matter of nanoseconds).

The recent DVD release of the film, you can get more information at www.dueldvd.com and www.duelcommercial.com, contains a number of extras. There are interviews with both Spielberg and Matheson, a trailer, production notes, and cast and crew filmographies. Spielberg also points out a mistake in the film, even after I noticed it (since I watched the film first)- that is a reflection of our great director in a glass phone booth scene. The film transfer itself is stunningly clear and crisp.

Dennis Weaver is nothing short of incredible. Long an underrated actor, "Duel" is one of his best roles. There are points in the film where he is doing his own stunts, and I have never felt such concern for an actor's well being in my life, even with Spielberg's assurances that McCloud was never in harm's way. The rest of the supporting cast has tiny roles, but one special performer deserves a mention. The Peterbilt gasoline truck that chases Mann's cherry red Plymouth Valiant through the desert canyons is scary as hell. The truck is covered in rust and oil and the driver is never seen, so the vehicle in fact becomes a character. It is much scarier than the Green Goblin truck from "Maximum Overdrive," and just as effective as the Plymouth Fury in "Christine." The film's score also recalls Hitchcock, with Goldenberg's musical score sounding like Bernard Herrmann's best.

"Duel" launched Spielberg's career, and it is entertaining to see him speak with such affection for this little film. It is also entertaining to watch. (* * * *) out of five stars.