Death Drive
Damon Smith on Duel

“I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me, there’s a hell hound on my trail.” —Robert Johnson

“The director, really, is like a traffic controller.” —Richard Matheson

The youngest director ever signed to a multi-year contract with Universal Pictures’ television division, film-school dropout Steven Spielberg was a leaner, meaner filmmaker in the early seventies. Having honed his visual technique on episodes of popular serials like Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D., he finally cut a break with Duel, a taut, technically virtuosic road-rage thriller adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man) that debuted in 1971 as ABC’s Movie of the Week. Spielberg’s hypertensive drama has a deviously straightforward premise that Roger Corman must have loved: the unseen driver of a menacing, creosote-spattered tanker truck terrorizes middle-aged salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver), driver of a bright red Plymouth Valiant, on a lonely stretch of desertified California highway, presumably for having the gall to pass him on the left. Or perhaps for sport.

What Spielberg did with such thin, sensationalistic material, which Matheson adapted himself after publishing his short-fiction original in Playboy, is a testimony to his raw talent and wide-eyed ambition. The film became an extended exercise in how to maximize suspense and visceral impact with limited means (he had a paltry budget of $400,000) and no innovative new technologies to exploit, apart from a specially equipped camera car on loan from the producers of Bullitt. (The famous nine-minute car-chase sequence in Peter Yates’s police procedural, which won an Oscar for best editing two years before, took five weeks to shoot. The entirety of Spielberg’s 74-minute Duel, an absurdly elaborate, constantly shifting architecture of low- and high-angle moving shots that seems to exhaust every possible camera position in its geometric depiction of diesel-fueled evil, was completed in 13 days.) Praised by the likes of François Truffaut and Hollywood legend David Lean, Spielberg’s down and dirty vision of irrational aggression reveals more than a precocious 21-year-old plying his newfound trade with a creative aplomb that blew the hubcaps off any other genre flick produced for network television in the Me Decade. It reminds us that Spielberg, in his artistic adolescence, was a more cynical storyteller, briefly fixated on exploring fear and baser emotional instincts. Certain career-long preoccupations, such as dysfunctional families and the almost sacred subjectivity of children, are here in embryonic form, yet mired in an un-Spielberg-like heresy of alienated discontent.

Spielberg’s primary concerns in Duel are masculine anxiety and variable point of view, thematic and technical emphases conjoined from the wordless opening sequence, which brought the language of art cinema into American living rooms. Over a black frame, footsteps are heard, a door opens, and a car motor ignites. The mounted camera backs out of a darkened garage into sunlight, with a front-bumper POV depicting the auto’s course through residential streets, city intersections, illuminated tunnels, and finally along US Interstate 5, in a series of dissolves accompanied only by title credits and the sound of banal talk-radio reports and ads for hemorrhoidal cream. There is no score, and no dialogue. Finally, we see a red automobile in medium-long shot, zooming down a curvy, one-lane rural highway, glimpsed through a barbed-wire fence. Weaver doesn’t appear onscreen until nearly four and half minutes have elapsed, and then only as a pair of sunglass-sheathed eyes in a rear-view mirror. As he nears the slow-moving, toxic-white-smoke belching Peterbilt truck—the word FLAMMABLE is etched on its grimy tank—he utters the film’s first line (“Talk about pollution!”) and maneuvers past. Moments later, the truck roars ahead without warning, nearly cutting him off, and the cat-and-mouse game begins.

As Mann putters along, frustrated that the trucker, who has deliberately slowed his hulking vehicle, blocks any attempt he makes to use the passing lane, Spielberg amplifies the tête-à-tête with a bit of sound design that almost goes unnoticed. On the radio, a caller frets over whether or not to mark himself as “head of household” on a U.S. Census Bureau questionnaire, complaining that his wife of 25 years wears the pants in the family, while he has been relegated to managing the housework and “raising babies.” It’s a bizarre piece of chatter, low in volume but still perfectly audible on the soundtrack. Mann pays no attention, even when the caller admits, “I wear a housedress . . . and slippers.” The fellow’s odd vexations become an objective correlative for the salesman’s own gnawing, low-level awareness of his impotence in the face of the world’s pressures and competitive violence, a subliminal agitation Spielberg exploits with cunning humor. The rat race is on, about to be literalized in the modern American hippodrome of Los Angeles–area commuter roadways, and Mann—his very name signifying his generic status as a male human, average in every way, right down to his department-store necktie and clipped moustache—is about to endure a humiliating test of his manhood.

Nearly every shot of the killer truck emphasizes its hulking mass and inimical force. Spielberg’s camera zooms alongside the racing eighteen-wheeler, nudging up close to its spinning tires, fly-specked grille, and giant head lamps, often sitting atop the rig as it bears down on Mann’s puny Valiant. Early on, the anonymous semi driver’s big meaty arm leisurely waves Mann to pass at a highly inopportune moment, baiting him into the path of an oncoming car. Many of the sequences that comprise the film are composed of bravura mobile shots within or around the interior of the red sedan; Mann’s eyes search for the murderous pursuer, who eventually glides into view, accelerating wildly or tugging his horn with ominous intent. Slowing to granny speed at one juncture, hoping to evade fate by falling far behind after a hostile rear-end collision leaves him rattled, Mann is horrified to find the sinister truck lying in wait miles ahead, eager to keep the high-speed dogfight alive. Cutting frenetically between varied angles and camera positions as the vehicles parry—road, window, pavement, mirror, axle, eyes, hood, windshield—Spielberg creates a suspenseful relay between Mann’s increasingly panicked state of mind (“Hey! Please stop! Hey!”) and the Foley sounds of the truck’s full-throttle engine and chugging exhaust pipe.

Best known as the star of TV’s long-running cop show McCloud, in which he played a studly, Southwest-mannered New Mexico marshal on assignment in big ol’ new yawk city, Weaver was hand-picked for Duel at Spielberg’s insistence because the director admired his turn as the jumpy, feeble-minded night manager of the Mirador Motel in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. Clearly, Mann’s own sweaty, nervous tics were modeled on that eccentric character; Spielberg even cribbed one of Weaver’s best lines from the film (“You got another thing comin’!”). At one point, Mann tries to determine which of the gruff patrons at a roadside café might be the driver of the killer truck parked outside. Framed in a pink room to emphasize his effeminacy, Mann orders a cheese sandwich and milk, then ponders what he might say (“Look, mister, I’m sorry if I irritated you...”) to end the standoff. Weaver’s whimpering internal monologue, overlong and dramatically inert, is an embarrassing gaffe of script-to-screen literalism, Spielberg’s only greenhorn blunder. The scene ends when Mann is trounced by a guy he mistakes for the psychopath as the customers look on contemptuously.

Spielberg’s interest in neutered masculinity colors much of his early work, from William Atherton’s hapless petty criminal Clovis Poplin in The Sugarland Express, who’s hitched to Goldie Hawn’s hard-headed blonde, to the Quint-Brody-Hooper gonadology of Jaws, in which macho one-upmanship reaches a comical pitch as the seafaring shark hunters compare battle scars on their ill-fated mission to cock-block a voracious great white. (MAD magazine gleefully skewered the Jaws poster image on its Jan. 1976 cover, replacing the bathing beauty whose pubis is about to be pierced by the shark’s snout with—“YECCH!”—Alfred E. Neuman.) That isn’t to say Spielberg’s conceit is wholly successful or even germane to what makes the movie such a remarkable piece of technical showmanship. Too often, his artfully planned highway-horror set pieces are punctuated by inertial stop-offs that labor to emphasize Mann’s unmanliness. Inside a gas station, he makes a pay-phone call to his wife (Jacqueline Scott), who upbraids him for refusing to defend her honor at a party the night before; he makes a lame crack about challenging the man to a duel. Spielberg shoots this scene through the window of an open clothes dryer, a woman’s obese arms in the foreground fishing out her laundry. It’s a clever shot, even if the symbolism is too pat.

At another point, counter to the Spielbergian habit of sanctifying childhood, Weaver’s everyman is mocked by a gaggle of school kids as he struggles in vain to push their stranded bus onto the highway with his not-so-Valiant four-door sedan. After his car gets lodged under the bumper, they appear in closeup, sticking their tongues out, making faces, and generally adding to his humiliation and misery. Duel’s best non-driving scene occurs when Mann, desperate for help, pulls over at the Snakerama, one of those bizarre, fuel-up-and-gawk-at-poisonous-critters rest stops familiar to anyone who’s traveled the highways of Texas or southern California. He piles into a phone booth (Spielberg inadvertently caught himself in the reflection; you can see him wearing a paisley shirt and holding an Arriflex) and phones the authorities. Just as his connection goes through, the dark-windowed tanker from hell enters the left side of the frame behind him, turns, and careens crazily toward the vulnerable Mann, denuded of his metal shield. Spielberg sets up the narrow miss with multiple cameras, as on the highway, stealing our breath with the illusion that the maniacal driver can’t possibly miss Weaver, who performed the stunt himself, darting out of the way right as the truck smashes into the call box and a clutch of vitrines, spraying glass, wood, and rattlers all over the lot. Persistent as a Fury, the truck circles around for another run at the helpless motorist. Spielberg and his stunt coordinator Carey Loftin (also the driver), a 50-year veteran who perfected daredevil sequences in Bullitt and The French Connection, must have been proud of themselves.

There’s a lot to admire in Spielberg’s early output, which culminates with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a truly majestic blend of curiosity and mystery, primal fear and star-gazing fantasy that seemed to promise the very expansion of knowledge and human thought via the mothership connection. In the director’s pre-blockbuster innocence and naiveté, he sought grittier story material that might possibly reflect the way things are, like it or not, grounding his aesthetic in a mastery of technique before attempting to blow it out with a spectacle as full of heart and utopian longing as a galactic visitation calls for. It was in his maturity that he began to fetishize childlike wonder and nostalgia for once-upon-a-time adventure for its own sake, sometimes hitting the mark, but often not. (Close Encounters’ nearly mute boy who becomes a conduit for extraterrestrial sensitivity will always be more fascinating than the “penis breath” wisecracks of E.T. or the all-too-knowing emo-tot of Empire of the Sun.) After the nutty nosedive of 1941, the road ahead would require an audience willing to see history and movies themselves as occasions for blow-me-down entertainment and sentimentalized cultural self-worship, something evidently dear to Spielberg as well. Gone was the edgy playfulness of Duel and Sugarland Express, born of yeoman enthusiasms, or the slightly nasty interpersonal dynamics of Jaws, still a brilliant fish tale. In rode E.T., Indiana Jones, Hook, Jurassic Park, and the idée fixe that “we are all children now,” especially in the movie theater. Spielberg’s maudlin tendencies emerge even when the forces of history (The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan) beckon our remembrance, wedding grand spectacle to varieties of easy emotional appeal.

Admirably, Duel’s spectacle was more concentrated (car versus truck, man versus Mann), its execution far guttier than in it would be in the box-office successes to follow. It was a movie made by an artist wanting to prove himself. Duel was also one of the few films in Spielberg’s career made without the toxic influence of John Williams, who has a maddening habit of poaching motifs wholesale from the likes of Igor Stravinsky (Jaws = “The Rite of Spring”) and Gustav Mahler (I could go on) or adding saccharine strains of unbridled feel-this-moment mush to an already heightened scene. Here the director hired one Billy Goldenburg, a journeyman TV composer who drew on a knowledge of non-Western instrumentation and sound design, as well as off-kilter composition, to create pulse-pumping tension. There may be no moral to Duel, no resolution beyond a man finding a bit of fight in himself after all, regaining some potency after defeating a metaphorical war machine. But the minimalism works. The final shot—a profile of Weaver parked on a cliff edge, tossing stones into the canyon where his nemesis has just perished as a nimbus of honey-hued crepuscular light illuminates the frame—is one of my favorites in Spielberg’s oeuvre. It’s all the sunshine he needs.