I'm going to come out and admit it: I'm not a fan of semi trucks.
I get tense whenever I need to pass one on a freeway. I hate driving along the freeway at night and seeing the headlights glaring in my rear view mirror. I don't like walking into a rest stop because I'm afraid the truckers are going to be leaning against the wall, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, ready to rough me up.
So it's odd that I've waited until now to see Steven Spielberg's 1971 feature directorial debut, "Duel," a thriller about a mild-mannered salesman (Dennis Weaver) who cuts off a semi one day and finds himself terrorized by the driver.
That's pretty much all you get for a plot description--David Mann is driving out to a sales call when he passes a slow moving semi and then, for the next 90 minutes, it's a game of cat and mouse as the semi driver first toys around with David and then reveals that he may actually have murder on his mind. That's it; just Mann escaping a bloodthirsty semi driver. No wife to save or hidden conspiracies, ala "Breakdown" and no final act that mixes up the modes of transportation like "Speed." Just a man (or Mann) and his red Valiant against a dirty, beat up, smoke belching semi truck. The result is a visceral thrillride that's worth a look simply to see how Spielberg's talent was evident even with this first film.
Watching it tonight, I was reminded how much I hate CGI car chases. I know a lot of people loved the most recent "Fast and Furious," but I loathed the computer-generated car chases. Yes, the digital effects make it look like the cars can go really fast through impossible situations. But there's something about the use of practical effects and stunts that adds another layer of intensity (want more evidence? The last 20 minutes of "Death Proof" beat anything in the "Fast and Furious" franchise). When we see Mann's car take a tight turn at a high speed and then swerve to right itself, our stomachs clench up a little bit. When the semi plows through a phone booth, we know that it was a stunt man who dove out of the way of the oncoming truck but there's still more danger in that shot than in simply creating the car out of nothing. Probably 60 of the film's 90 minutes are dedicated to high speed car chases and it's a pleasant surprise to see just how tense and nerve-wracking they still are after all these years.
Even in his first film, Spielberg's trademarks are evident. There's the suburban family at the background as Mann calls his wife to apologize for a fight the night before. There's the use of close-ups on rear view mirrors and car windows. There's the unseen villain, a template Spielberg would perfect just four years later with "Jaws"--and, indeed, there is a case to make for calling this film "Jaws with a truck," as both films share a raw, primal power.
Even though this is largely a one-man show, Spielberg ably gets us into Mann's head. After an early encounter with the truck, Mann finds himself in a cafeteria looking for the bathroom so he can regain his composure. Spielberg tracks him through the cafe in an unbroken, handheld shot; I love the way the shot's shakiness helps us share in Mann's paranoia, and there's a great punchline to the shot when it ends back at the cafe window, staring at the truck that has mysteriously reappeared. Less successful are some of the voice overs that try and get us into Mann's head--yes, the early line about how the event is "shaking loose whatever held you into place" is well written. But voice over as a rule is a sloppy device and it tends to spoon-feed us information that Weaver's competent performance should have made apparent.
Weaver's performance is crucial in adding an element of psychological thriller to "Duel." Mann starts the film as a composed, somewhat confident salesman, proud of his clean car and nicely-groomed, probably a little cocky on the road. As the truck causes him to become unraveled, he begins accosting strangers at the cafeteria and his attempts to help a school bus make him look deranged. At the end he's a nervous wreck, his voice shaking and high. In the end he's a bundle of nerves, alternating between exhilarated victory and breaking down in terrified tears.
In a way, "Duel" is less about Mann's encounter with a truck and more about his struggle with emasculation. One of the things that intimidates me about truckers is that they often seem to be more like "real men" than I am. I'm polished up in my suit and tie, living a safe and comfortable existence. They're out on the road, caked in grease and grime, working long hours and late nights away from home. They're rougher and tougher, while the rest of us often can feel a bit more fragile and weak.
In many ways, that's the plight Mann finds himself in. The film opens with Mann listening to a talk radio show where a caller is concerned about filling in his census form as "head of the house" because he feels that's the position his wife's taken. When Mann stops for gas and the clerk tosses off a "you're the boss," Mann snaps back with "not at my house." And when he calls to apologize to his wife, it's because he didn't stand up for her when a friend was making an advance at a party. And then, this timid, well-groomed and mild-mannered salesman finds his existence threatened by an unflappable force that stalks him with an almost supernatural determination. When he tries to help out a busload of kids and his car gets stuck, the camera lingers on them laughing at him and making faces. I don't even think I have to bring up that Mann drives a tiny red Valiant and the shot's of the semi truck emphasize its large size.
The psychological undertones of "Duel" are interesting, but at heart this was simply a great chance for Spielberg to show his skills at engaging audiences and delivering heart-stopping set pieces. A surprisingly solid debut for a young director who went on to become Hollywood's biggest name.