Monday, February 25, 2013
(There are at least two different versions of Duel, due to its origin as a TV movie-of-the-week, a 74 minute television cut that ran on ABC in 1971 and a 90 minute theatrical cut that played overseas in 1972. I'm not entirely sure if the 74 minute cut is available so obviously the version I am working from is the 90 minute theatrical one.)
It's not news that the made-for-TV movie has mostly disappeared from the television landscape. Broadcast networks have almost entirely given up on them, and the cable channels that still make them are bifurcated into two camps - the big prestige pictures from the art-house networks, like last year's HBO-produced Game Change, an Emmy-baity bit of insta-politics starring bonafide movie stars, and bottom-of-the-barrel shlock like Sharktopus, produced by Roger Corman and starring the remains of Eric Roberts' career. There is effectively no ground for a lark like Duel, a low-stakes but well-produced thriller starring a B-list actor that desires nothing more than to come into America's living rooms and entertain for 90 minutes. I don't necessarily lament that fact (bad TV movies significantly outnumbered good or even average ones, and young directors like the 24 year old Steven Spielberg are probably better off honing their craft in the DIY, indie film style than in the employ of a corporate-owned network) but it's a salient fact when watching Duel to recognize its time capsule quality.
Duel began life as a Richard Matheson short story which was published in Playboy, and which he eventually expanded into a TV movie length film. Matheson is probably most famous either for writing I Am Legend, which has been filmed several times, or for his handful of Twilight Zone episodes, including the classic Shatner-starring "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (the gremlin-on-a-plane episode); I feel very confident in saying that he was the much bigger name on the film when it was produced. It unquestionably reflects Matheson's paranoid horror sensibility; Spielberg has been forced to bend his style into the shape of Matheson's script, rather than the other way around.
The film divides very neatly into thirds. The first act begins with our hero, David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver, who I gather was something of a That Guy for 60's and 70's era television) traveling into the boonies outside of LA in his sad, red/orange Plymouth Valiant on some sort of business-related trip. Along the way he passes (as in, goes around on a two-lane road) the ugliest, grimiest oil tanker imaginable, and is slowly but inexorably drawn into a game of cat-and-mouse with the sociopathic, unseen driver of the truck, who the film suggests was just looking for an excuse to make sushi out of a hapless driver. Mann manages to escape the chase when he crashes into a white picket fence outside of a rural diner, and the second third of the movie has Mann discover that the tanker, which he thought he had lost, is parked outside the diner, and then indulge his own paranoia about which of the customers at the restaurant is the driver of the truck. The final third picks up the chase on the road once again, with the driver of the tanker escalating the conflict to its breaking point, and Mann desperately searching for a way to end it.
It's something of an understood phenomenon that Spielberg is a much better beginner than he is a finisher. Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with a bravura action setpiece involving a man being chased by a gigantic rolling ball of death, and ends with people closing their eyes. Jurassic Park's most famous moments mostly involve the pre-sabotage "Holy shit, dinosaurs!" scenes, and it goes without saying that Saving Private Ryan is quite possibly the film with the most precipitous dropoff in the history of film from the stage-setting opening sequence to the long, intermittently interesting slog that follows. Duel falls right into this same category - the first act plays like the tautest, most viscerally exciting thriller you'll ever see, and then eventually things go flabby. A long opening scene tracks the passage of Mann's car from city to country, while the soundtrack is made up of nothing but diegetic sounds, the radio, the car, the sounds of nature. Spielberg takes the time to build the tension from the moment Mann first encounters the truck to the point at which he's barreling down the highway at 90 miles an hour, in serious danger of his life, and the entire sequence pre-diner takes less than half an hour. Cut it by about 5 minutes and it's a memorable episode of the Twilight Zone; add another 15 minutes and it's your grandfather's favorite Mannix, the one where Mannix is chased by the psycho truck driver for the whole episode and eventually outwits him.
But this is a movie, and there is still an hour's worth of material to pad out before we get to our conclusion. There are a handful of secondary characters in Duel, but none of them (with the possible exception of Mann's wife, who he has a phone conversation with midway through the first act) makes much of an impression. Mann is the only character of note in the film, and the script has to figure out a way to filter his perception of what's happening to the audience. The script makes an unfortunate, though probably not surprising, choice in the second act by including a narrative voiceover from Mann's perspective. I honestly wasn't sure that that's what it was doing at first - when it first happens, with Mann standing in front of a mirror at the diner, I assumed (given how I'm attuned as a 21st century film watcher) that it was simply a bit of soundtrack overlap, and the scene of Mann looking in the mirror would soon cut to a scene of him talking to someone at the diner, out loud, about what was happening. But no, this is spoken internal monologue, and it is really jarring. Mann is confronted by a diner full of taciturn, shit-kicking good old boys who all wear similar boots to the ones the driver of the truck wears (the only positive identification he has of the person who is menacing him, and I'm not sure if one would genuinely expect to find modern-day cowboys in the wilds of Southern California, but it's a nice nod to the film's Western roots, so I can go with it), and Mann slowly loses his mind, first in his interior narrative and eventually outwardly, as he tries to figure out how to deal with the fact that his tormentor is apparently sharing space with him. The film picks back up once we get back to spoken dialogue between Mann and the person who he identifies as the driver - the voiceover is not a fatal problem for the film, but boy is it a wretched choice.
So Mann eventually gets back on the road for the third act finish, and although it's a significant improvement from the static second act, the fact that we basically know all there is that the film wants us to know about the driver of the truck at this point robs the film of some of its suspense. The slow rollout of the truck driver's malevolent intent in the first act ratches up the tension in stages; the danger represented by the truck in the third act starts at 10, so there's nowhere for the tension to really go but down. The film futzes around with a strange interlude with the driver of a school bus, filled with supremely obnoxious children, asking Mann to help him give the bus a moving start - Mann insists his car is too small to do it, the bus driver insists he's wrong, eventually Mann is proven right, and then the truck shows up to menace Mann again. This scene in particular really belies Duel's TV movie roots, and wikipedia tells me that it was indeed added to the theatrical release to pad out the running time; it goes from nowhere to nowhere, but allows Weaver to yell at a bunch of children for immediately climbing all over his car the moment he stops to help out, which is extremely weird but kind of funny.
Ultimately, the biggest sin of the third act is the anti-climax that ends it. I won't give it away for anyone who hasn't seen this and wants to, but the movie really comes to an abrupt and deeply unsatisfying end. The choice is made very early on to make the truck itself the villain of the piece, and while I appreciate the sort of mysterious terror that this gives to the film, it means that, in the end, Mann's quest doesn't end with a satisfying payoff against a real-live person, but an (unsatisfying, in my mind) payoff against an object.
Weaver's performance is workmanlike, and I don't necessarily mean that negatively. He has a TV actor's weakness of not really being willing (or able) to alter the performance as he goes along, which is the sort of thing you rarely need to do when you're playing a guest character on a 48 minute episode of a television show that will only ever revert to the status quo ante once the episode is over. Mann's journey here is supposed to take him from a sad, shlubby loser who can't even fathom what is happening to him to a determined, somewhat courageous man who recognizes that his only way out is to fight back, and while he's good at the shlubby part of that the sense of steely determination never really comes across at the end. He does have a nice, expressive face, and he wears an ugly pair of early-70's sunglasses like no one's business. The film pushes very hard and unsubtly on the theme of male anxiety in the first act (there are two parallel conversations, one of which is between a radio caller and a talk show host that Mann listens to, and one of which Mann has with his wife, that both hit hard on the idea that the men of the early-70's are having a tough time figuring out their place in a world in which they are no longer the sole or even main breadwinners of their households, and the idea of the traditional male role is in rapid flux.) But it mostly drops that theme after that, which is maybe reflective of the film having trust in the audience to remember and reflect on it as the plot of the film progresses, but is also probably reflective of the fact that the script couldn't figure out a good way to work the theme back in organically. Spielberg also, after a nice, understated touch with the soundtrack in the 1st act (the sound design is really good, with the differential sound of the two vehicles' respective engines providing an underscore to the menace that the tanker poses to Mann's sad little Valiant) eventually goes heavy-handed with the music, especially near the climax. This is another problem he has evinced throughout his career, and it's one that can already be detected here.
Matheson's script never quite figures out how to efficiently tell the story it intends to tell without someone for Weaver to play off of, and Spielberg's direction spends too much time exploring dead-ends. But the suspense that they build together is undeniable, and if you can get past the fact that they come to an unsatisfactory conclusion, it's a pretty good B-movie for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Spielberg the visual craftsman is in here, no question about it, but he hasn't quite emerged yet.