Friday, July 3, 2009

Duel (1971)

Now this is the kind of little thriller I tend to enjoy. You got a couple of characters (business man, evil truck, couple of people along the way), minimal settings (interior of car, diner, gas station/snake farm), and lots of high speed driving. You also got a first time film director in Steven Spielberg so you know things like suspense, well shot chases, and maybe even some excitement are likely to be involved. Call it "Jaws with a drive shaft" or something.

Like I alluded to earlier, the story is pretty simple. A business man (the cracking under pressure Dennis Weaver) leaves his quaint little home in the city to deliver some papers or have a talk or something (I don't know, it's never made clear) with some guy he'd like to do business with. Anyway, this guy lives across the desert. I'm not sure if this picture takes place in California, Arizona, Nevada or the Sahara (never made too clear either or maybe I just wasn't paying attention when they mentioned it). I probably shoulda checked out those license plates when the camera showed them for like the millionth time. Anyway, Dennis Weaver (character never named) heads out across the desert to deliver some business. Along the way, he goes up a mountain and encounters a pretty evil looking truck. The truck blows black smoke in his face so he passes it while ridiculing the unseen driver's lack of concern for the environment. I guess the driver doesn't like being passed so he proceeds to terrorize the business man for the next 70-80 minutes or so (I don't think it was real time). He does things like bump his bumper, honk the horn, plow into phone booths while he's trying to make a call, etc.

I was pretty suprised that I had never seen this thing. I saw that movie Joy Ride which was pretty similiar except in that one they give the trucker a motivation for his actions (CB prank gone bad) and also a voice (Buffalo Bill). This one, in a way, is almost creepier since the crime is motiveless. And, also, we never see the trucker. At first we wonder if this isn't some sorta possessed truck since after all this was written by the guy that gave us the evil little zuni doll (Richard Matheson). Eventually, we realize there's a man in that cab (we see an arm, I think part of a hat, and some boots at one point). A man is probably scarier anyway. We can believe a guy like this would actually exist.

At first, he just toys with poor Dennis Weaver. Weaver just laughs it off. The trucker, at one point, waves for Weaver to pass him. Weaver starts to and is almost killed in a head on collision with another car. These are the kinda games the trucker finds amusing. The best scene is probably the diner scene after the trucker chases Weaver down the mountain, Weaver crashes into a fence and the trucker keeps driving. Weaver, shaken, drenched in sweat, makes his way to the diner. He sits inside for a while, orders some lunch. Eventually, he notices the truck parked outside. One of the guys sitting at the bar is trying to kill him. Or maybe it's the guy playing pool. Shit man, this is Spielberg's first film and he's already a master of suspence.

The movie isn't perfect. I kept yelling at Weaver to keep the pedal to the metal every time he passed the truck, but he always let up. Matheson (or maybe Spielberg) perhaps realizing this (blunder?) threw in an awkward voice over for Weaver where he acknowledges this and then blames it on "habit". That doesn't really fly with me and it shouldn't fly with his character either. An evil looking truck is bearing down on you from behind, you don't let up. You floor that fucker until the tank is dry or you've hit civilization.

And, when I say that truck is "evil looking" I damn well mean it. It's old, rusty and has this elongated nose. Spielberg, in the interview that comes with the DVD, mentions that he chose the truck since it looked like it had a face. You got the eyes (split windshield), and some massive teeth (the grill), and I guess that makes the headlights the dimples and the side mirrors the ears or some shit. Maybe the exhaust is the ass. Take my word for it, it's evil.

This is one that'll keep you on the edge of your seat. Spielberg made this thing for TV but it doesn't really feel like it. Yeah, it only comes in full screen but you'll get over it. There are some great shots including the title sequence all shot from Weaver's car's point of view. Weaver gives a fittingly unsettled performance. The end is a little too satisfying in my view. I'm not sure if the original story ends this way. I guess I'll just have to read it or search the internet for spoilers to find out. Almost forgot about the score. It's some eerily great shit, lots of chimes, low percussions. Very unorthodox for a TV movie, or any movie come to think of it. Shit man, I'm trying to find the perfect way to end this thing, but I can't do it. Stop reading now and just pretend I said something clever.


elmo said...

If you haven't already, go to Netflix and watch "Tokyo Gore Police." It's like Clive Barker mixed with Robocop, filtered through Machine Girl- which actually does nothing to prepare you...

Sam said...

You can watch all of Duel on Google Video somehow, and it's pretty good. It must have been good practice for Jaws and Jurassic Park, too (the truck makes a weird howling sound when it crashes that sounds just like a wailing T-Rex).

brian said...

Sam, I actually learned (from watching Spielberg's interview that comes with the DVD) that the sound of the truck crashing was also the sound he used when Jaws blows up and sinks to the bottom.

brian said...

Elmo, I have seen Tokyo Gore Police. I didn't get into it nearly as much I got into Machine Girl. I think it put me into sensory overload and I wasn't really into the way it was shot. Perhaps I should give it a another try at some point.

Megmo Eskimo said...

OMG!! Kirker I am equally delighted and shocked...delighted that you did a review of such a wonderful and fab film and shocked that you had not seen it until recently. I am FOREVER telling John to watch it as it is an underated yet taut and suspenseful movie. Great review!!