Saturday, February 11, 2012

#126: Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)

Steven Spielberg, 1971: A young guy in his mid-twenties who's directed a few short films and television episodes, no features, one secretary, about to make his first feature film. The film will be completed in 13 days, shot on location in and around the rural highways of Northern California. Steven Spielberg, 2012: A billionaire in his mid-sixties, owner of his own production company and $250 million yacht, multiple Oscar-winner, director/producer of films with budgets so huge that one recent production included its own Scientology center to appease its star (Tom Cruise), a man whose name alone is enough to drive differing camps of film buffs and critics and film professionals into either slobbering worship or vitriolic hatred.

What's my take on Spielberg? I'm not entirely sure. He's made a half-dozen films I love, a few others I like against my better judgment, many I hate, and many I haven't seen. I was born in the late 1970s, so many of my earliest memorable movie theater experiences are films Spielberg either directed or produced. I don't like the idea of putting him in the pantheon of American greats, but I don't agree with those who think of him as the anti-Christ and ruiner of 1970s movie culture. He's a tremendously gifted visual stylist, but he also tends to lick the audience's face like a puppy dog far too often. Sometimes driven by sentimental corn and happily ever after, he also has a fucked-up, solitary, dark heart that sneaks above the puppy-dog surface in some of his best and worst films. He's a complex guy who too often smothers his own complexity, and he's rewarded by audiences and the industry for indulging in his worst impulses.

Spielberg grew up a Jewish kid in a broken home in a suburban 1950s Midwest that was largely Christian and intact. I don't want or care to over-speculate and armchair-psychologize about his childhood's impact on his work, but broken homes and a need to be loved by the average audience member have figured in the majority of his work, so connect your own dots if you want. I think Spielberg is at his best when he makes something for the pure pleasure and fun of moviemaking (most of his 1970s and early 1980s films), when he doesn't quite know what he's doing, whether that shows up onscreen (1941, a lovable mess) or doesn't (Jaws, which went over-schedule and over-budget and almost got him fired, but plays like a taut, efficient thriller), and when he drops the need to be loved and lets the darkness rip (the misunderstood Kubrick collaboration and, in my opinion, great fucking movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Duel). Spielberg loses me when he tries to get serious. Like Tarantino, Spielberg is a tremendously accomplished technical filmmaker who is frozen in a pre-adult suspended animation and whose only reference points are other movies and pop culture. Unlike Tarantino, Spielberg doesn't seem to know this. The Oscar contender serious issue films (The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, etc.) are pretty fucking dreadful, though Schindler's List has plenty to recommend it if one ignores some ethical and aesthetic concerns. Spielberg is forever a boy, so the complexities of history, politics, genocide, war, race, terrorism, and death are beyond his understanding (as a filmmaker, I mean; I don't know anything about Spielberg the private citizen). These films are superficial and stupid, and his virtuosic understanding of film language doesn't extend to an understanding of how to apply that technique in appropriate, non-sledgehammer ways to his subject matter. This is a long-winded way of saying he should have made more movies like Duel.

Fuckin' Duel. Alright. Now we're talking. I love Duel. This is pure, stripped-down filmmaking with no room for bullshit like plot, exposition, gauzy flashbacks, sentimentality, tidy resolutions, or moral messages. This is just visceral action, observational characterization, and geographical detail. It's camera work that is graceful without being showoffy and raw without being sloppy. It's a determination of purpose, an unwavering toughness, an hour-and-a-half of Hitchcock suspense and Peter Yates action and image and sound. It's Dennis Weaver giving one of his best performances. It's a 90-minute car chase, a continuous game of chicken, with a variety of scenes and fully developed characterizations. It's a pretty damn impressive feature debut from a 26-year-old kid. It's about 1200 times better than Saving Private Ryan and that's a scientific fact. Take it to the movie lab and run your own tests. You will get the same result, plus or minus two percent. I guaran-goddamn-tee it.

Duel begins with a POV shot of a driver leaving his Los Angeles home and heading north toward Bakersfield. He takes the scenic rural highway north for what we later learn is a business meeting, listening to talk radio and humming along at 60 mph, and the camera glides around the car to give us a look at the driver for the first time about five minutes in. We see Dennis Weaver, in business casual attire and large tinted glasses, and his car, a bright red 1970 Plymouth Valiant, which photographs beautifully on the gray asphalt. He soon comes up behind a gray-green semi, spitting smoke and showing off license plates from several states, "FLAMMABLE" painted on the back in now fading capital letters. Weaver passes the slow-moving truck. The truck passes him and slows back down. Weaver passes the truck again. The truck bears down on him, tailgating him. Weaver speeds up to 80 and stops for gas. The truck pulls into the station next to him. He doesn't get a look at the driver's face, but he sees his cowboy boots kicking the tires on the other side of the truck. Weaver goes inside and calls his wife, apologizing about a recent fight. They get into a fresh argument. The camera frames Weaver's thin figure on the phone and the parked car and truck outside at the pumps within a second frame of a washer/dryer door at the laundromat inside. Weaver hits the road again. Soon, the truck is back, right behind him. The swinging-dick contest becomes increasingly ominous as the film progresses.

And that's about it. This is a movie about a truck terrorizing a driver on a long, rural road trip and nothing else, unless you're the type who can't enjoy the formal aspects of a film without finding a sociological subtext buried or shallowly buried in every frame. In that case, I'd suggest starting with the class divide between the upper-middle and lower-middle class. I love the simplicity of the story, scripted by Richard Matheson based on his own short story, and how much we learn about Weaver's character without having his life explained or pounded into us. I love how much mystery remains in the man, even at the film's conclusion, and how the driver of the truck is never revealed. Spielberg finds so many beautiful shots that don't call attention to themselves the way some of his later work does. This is such a strong piece of work from a new filmmaker, a film that couldn't be made by a billionaire with a $250 million yacht.

Surprisingly for such a strong piece, the film debuted as an ABC-TV Movie of the Week. The producers felt the story was too simplistic for a theatrical release. The TV movie was a huge hit, and Spielberg expanded his cut from 74 to 90 minutes for a European and Australian theatrical run. That cut played some American theaters later and is the version available on DVD. Duel played regularly on cable in the 1980s, and I remember seeing parts of it at my grandparents' house on several occasions, but I'd never seen the entire thing from start to finish until last night. I don't know why I waited so long. Duel is one of Spielberg's best films.