Monday, August 31, 2009

Duel (1971)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. This was Steven Spielberg's first feature-length directing job, a 1971 TV-movie based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Spielberg had directed TV shows, in particular a two-hour episode of "Columbo" that's actually one of that show's best, though technically he'd never done a movie.

"Duel" launched his career in part because he did a great job but also because he had the good sense to jump on this opportunity in the first place, knowing that simplicity is what puts a director center stage. "Duel" is an absurdly simple idea. A business man (played by Dennis Weaver) tries to drive to a meeting but is taunted by the unseen driver of a run-down tanker truck. The more he tries to get away, the more enraged the trucker seems to become.

The TV-movie plays out like an extended "Twilight Zone" segment, mostly maintaining its watchability on the strength of Spielberg's direction. Lean as it is, the script is too thick, unnecessarily bulked up with Weaver's thoughts, dropped in as reverb-laden voice overs. Y'know, "Why won't he leave me alone?" Junk like that. You have to figure that when Dennis Weaver was alive he probably praised this flick up and down constantly because it was Steven Spielberg, and he was hoping to God to get cast in "Saving Private Ryan Again" or whatever, but the fact is, Dennis Weaver was a pretty goddamn good actor and didn't need a voice over to communicate to his audience that his character wondered "Why won't he leave me alone?" as a mysterious unseen stranger driving a rusty oil tanker repeatedly rear-ended him at 60 m.p.h while careening down a mountain road.

Still, it's all very exciting, or at least the first 70 or so minutes is. Then you find yourself thinking that, as long as we're clearly never going to see the truck driver -- because he represents the faceless inevitability of death, or whatever the fuck -- can we please just get to the resolution here? Either this guy is going to cheat death ("...for now.") or death will find him in the end and drive off into the distance (" look for its next victim.").

So. It just doesn't take us quite as long to figure out that those are our only two choices. I think we're supposed to be a little further out on the edges of our seats hoping to see who the truck driver is. Maybe I'm a little too jaded and familiar with film school types to enjoy this movie as much as I would have liked.

If you're into seeing this for the piece of movie/TV history it is, I highly recommend it. The opening titles, by the way are great -- it looks like Quentin Tarantino may have lifted them for "Death Proof."

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