Duel (1971), or The Debut

22 09 2009

It might have been a mistake to watch Duel, Steven Spielberg’s feature-length debut. It’s not that it’s a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. Conversely, for a made-for-television movie of the early 1970s, it was damn riveting. But it doesn’t leave a whole lot of things to talk about. It’s one of the simplest films I’ve ever reviewed, with the exception of perhaps My Dinner With Andre. It’s so bare-bones, but I’m seriously impressed with how effective it is.

Here’s the premise, based on the extremely short story written by horror savant Richard Matheson: a regular Joe is driving on the open road to make an appointment of some sort, when he finds himself the target of extreme homicidal hatred for one extremely cheesed trucker and his gigantic truck. There’s no reason given as to where he came from, why he’s angry, or why he chose our regular Joe, named David Mann, to mercilessly engender. It’s quite the conundrum, but whatever the reasons, the trucker will stop at nothing to attack Mann, the little guy, and push him to the brink of oblivion with his enormous 18-wheeler. When he’s not bumping him from behind, he’s attempting to run Mann over while he’s not in his vehicle, forcing him into deadly situations with oncoming vehicles, and even plowing through buildings to get to the fellow. What’s his problem, dude? Can the one and only David Mann harsh this evil trucker’s buzz in time to save his own skin? Or will his tiny ’71 red POS be a metallic coffin for our tiny little baby hero?

That’s it. Seriously. Almost the entire film is spent on the road, narrowly escaping danger and being privy to Mann’s hopelessly confused inner monologue. There are only three or four actors in the whole movie (with the exception of some extras at the local Pump ‘N Munch), little change of scenery, and it clocks in at a wispy 78 minutes. Sounds kind of low-key, but it works exceedingly well because it keeps you on edge almost the whole time! There’s really no break for this poor schlub and his hideous red lemon. The trucker is constantly on his ass, for whatever reason, and so you can’t really take a break, relax, or complain about how short it is. Duel captures the essence of a thriller by combining the fear of the unknown with the rushing relentlessness of a nameless threat to create an idea that he would utilize later in his master-stroke, Jaws.

Spielberg shows promise here, but it isn’t a case of love-at-first-collision. Duel shows his love of thrill-a-minute action and his desire to work on a huge scale. I enjoyed seeing someone who is now considered seminal work with a free-wheeling style that can only come from a low budget. He would almost never work with such a paltry sum of money ever again, so it’s neat to see him going cheap, fast, and frayed around the edges. He just has this problem in Duel with keeping the consistency going. When the tension stops, and it’s not for very long or very often, but when it does, it just stops dead. We go from running for our lives and sitting on the edge of our seat to asking Old Man River where the bathroom is in the Middle-of-Nowhere Cafe. It’s jarring and I could have done without thinking of David relieving himself in a smelly public restroom.

This is a movie where you’re watching a LOT of build-up, and it’s good for the most part, but one thing that really bugs me is the constant insistence that our David Mann is just a regular Joe. I was very sick of his ordinariness by the end of the movie. It’s his very character; it positively bellows the word “SCHMUCK” from the tops of the towers. I couldn’t stand the guy at times, with his trendy stand-alone ‘stache, his 2-dimensional nature, and his utter meekness. I can see what they were trying to do, but some scenes really bring home the lameness of David and I just can’t abide by it. When he’s getting his car fixed near the beginning, and the mechanic suggests he changes his radiator hose, David blithely refuses. The mechanic nonchalantly says “You’re the boss,” to which David replies to an exasperated TV audience, “Not in MY house, I’m not.” Ho-ho-hee-hee-ha-ha-huh. Hilarious, man; when David jokes, the entire world shakes its head.

But not too shabby. It’s great for a car-chase movie from the mind of I Am Legend author Richard Matheson. It’s an intense thriller that’s way better than what comes on TV nowadays. Action fans and car-chase fans need to flock in droves to check out this DVD; there’s so much stuff going on that you’ll hardly have time to focus on the so-so characters, of which there is really only one. It’s only 78 minutes, so you can definitely make the time for it. Duel will always live forever as the first Spielberg movie, but it’s worthwhile as more than a piece of cinematic history; it’s a viable cat-and-mouse film with plenty of speed and danger for a TV movie. I give Duel 7 1/2 stand-alone ‘staches out of 10.

Tomorrow I get into the spirit of Asian cinema with the early 90s title Heaven and Earth! Until then!!!