While I am quite aware that there are a ton of films I still need to catch up within regards to the "most important" works of cinema, both American and foreign, it is quite nice to be at a point in my film consumption that I am able to dig deeper and find lesser known gems for viewing experience, especially the discoveries of lesser known works by well-established directors, particularly those of Steven Spielberg. In the past few decades Spielberg has all but made himself the face of American filmmaking by creating gripping narratives that often double as fully realized blockbusters. Now it is also worth acknowledging the particularly troublesome notion of films being Spielbergian which seems to account as being both negative and positive simultaneously, granting that his use of orchestra heavy John Williams scores and sweeping camera work cause very real emotive responses within their viewers, while also arguing that this highly-stylized execution on the part of Spielberg is in some ways hokey or hammed-up for effect. While there is a degree of validity to this argument, it is quite necessary to remember that these descriptors account for a specific set of films by the director, whose cannon is almost inconceivably expansive. The epic nature of his films often only hold true for those that are in their very nature fantastical, whether it be Jurassic Park or the Indiana Jones films. Indeed, if one were to revisit something like Jaws or Schlinder's List it becomes rather obvious that the over-the-top nature of the auteur only emerges when it is begged from the narrative. To solidly entrench this argument I offer what may well be the biggest hidden gem in Spielberg's oeuvre, his 1971 television movie Duel, which exists within the world of implausibility and intensity, while also managing not to be an entirely showy or melodramatically over-abundant film. Indeed, I would even contest that this film is a highly internal work that focuses on the experiences of a singular man in relation to a terrible encounter that invariably leads to his fracturing from insanity, the acting is surprisingly minimal given the movies concept and the music is decidedly diagetic. Perhaps it was the fact that the film was made-for-tv that resulted in Spielberg reigning in his showy ways, but one thing is for certain, it shows a varied cinematic output by one of film's most identifiable directors and the result is quite excellent.
Duel is a decidedly enclosed narrative, focusing nearly entirely on the experiences of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) a non-descript business man who is taking a semi-lengthy trip for a meeting with somebody a couple of hours from his home. With only the absurd discussions of talk radio to accompany him he heads about his way, hoping to make great time an endeavor that leads to him passing a slowly moving freight truck with little or no thought. However, immediately after this decision, it becomes clear that the unseen trucker is quite infuriated with David for his act and begins bullying the much smaller car by passing him on the narrow road and blocking him from moving any further. An irate David pulls into a gas station to seek respite and calls his wife to apologize for some vague event involving a sexually demeaning advance by another man at a part, an act for which David apparently stood by indifferently. David clearly hopes that this brief pause will afford him escape from the encroachment of the maniacal truck, although it becomes quite obvious upon return to the road that the trucker's vendetta is far from over. What follows is a highly intense game of cat and mouse between David and the truck driver, wherein David constantly attempts to take advantage of his much smaller size and speed to take side roads and the like, even going so far as to break at a local diner in order to approach the truck driver in person, yet in the decidedly elusive nature of the driver, David ends up showing face and ultimately gets kicked out of the restaurant for starting altercations with the customers. All the while, David is continually chased by the trucker who shows no hesitation in destroying all that is in his path in order to teach David a lesson. When David attempts to seek solace by helping a group of children and their bus driver get back on the road it is only another point of failure as he is again attacked by the truck driver who chases David off and immediately aids the children in their getting back on the road, verifying that the driver's wild behavior is entirely intended for David. Ultimately, the chase leads to a dead end of sorts and a showdown occurs between the much smaller vehicle David is driving and the truck, but in a last minute move of genius that plays upon the rampage of the truck driver, David is able to get the truck to drive off of a cliff, thus, assumedly, killing the driver in the process. Yet given his ultimate escape, David does not immediately return home, instead he sits dazed by the events and simply tosses rocks in to the wreckage in the canyon below.
The tossing of the rocks pretty much entrenches the films clear narrative influence which, while pulled from a short story, clearly borrows heavily from the biblical tale of David and Goliath, both in the chucking of rocks at a figurative slain beast, as well as the title character's all to obvious name. However, David's last name is Mann, which helps to conceptualize the second layer of Spielberg's Duel, which clearly seems to deal with the issues of failed masculinity and the misguided attempts to reassert one's masculine loss a theme that is present to varying degrees within other works by Spielberg, particularly Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but seems to be most blatant and wild within the context of this film. Between the failed ability to assert himself in an awkward situation the day before, as evidenced by his brief conversation with his wife and his recounting of his experiences in what viewers can assume to be the Vietnam War, David has assumedly lost all sense of self-worth, even going so far as to silently relate to a man who bemoans feeling as though he is not the head of his household, while he is quick to laugh off another man who is concerned with whether or not his filling out of the census will result in his home being invaded. With this in mind, one is better able to understand the frustrations that come to a boil, leading to David's initial passing of the truck, it is half out of a need to speed up his travel time and as passive condemnation of the truck for interfering with his ability to escape his lack. Yet, when the truck driver quickly puts David into check, what unfolds is a series of missteps and failures to verify his own masculinity some taking very physical form, whether it be his cowering in fear when his verbal threats fail at the diner, or his own attempt to exert a "perfect male sense of direction" to elude the truck driver. David runs the gamut of attempts to be a man only to find that in this scenario those assumedly male advantage are both useless but, arguably irrelevant. Metaphorically speaking, David is also reminded of his own failures as a male in the form of references to what might be his impotence, these realizations occur most noticeably at the aptly named Snake-o-rama gas station, as well as his failure to "perform" when he cannot push the phallic-like bus through the tunnel, a metaphor only heightened when David notices the truck waiting at the other end of the tunnel, suggesting that another phallic power already resides in his place, one that is sexually adept and bigger. It is no coincidence that David's ultimate success comes in his avoiding a head on conflict with the truck driver, finding that butting phallic heads proved futile. It is worth considering this in relation to some other Spielberg works, because I am quite confident that it is a metaphor that extends well through a series of his early works.
Key Scene: The Snake-o-rama scene is wild and surprisingly elaborate for a television movie.
Quite a surprise for an early work and while Jaws is the definitive starting point for Spielberg, I would highly encourage checking this movie out because it is as thrilling as they come.