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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Day 175: Duel

People wanting to see "Duet" are going to be disappointed

Just about everyone loves Steven Spielberg, right? The man has made some of the best movies in the past 30 + years: E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Raiders of the Last Ark. The list goes on and on. Just about everything he touches turns to gold. Sure, we all know the classics, but I wanted to go back to one of his first films and one of the few films that could be considered horror. It might not fit in your traditional horror movie, there's no real blood, nothing supernatural about it, no monsters jumping out from dark corners. That doesn't make it any less thrilling or terrifying.

Duel is a 1971 made-for-television (and later theatrical) horror/thriller starring Dennis Weaver (Dragnet, Touch of Evil) as electronics salesman David Mann. The movie is based on a short story written by Richard Matheson (Twilight Zone, Burn Witch Burn) which he also adapted for the screen. David is on a business trip driving his red Plymouth Valiant in the California desert. On his trip, David gets stuck behind a slow-moving, rusted tanker truck with the word “FLAMMABLE” printed on the back. David speeds up and goes around the truck. The truck roars past him, cuts him off, and then promptly slows down again. David returns the favor, passing him for a second time, leading the truck to blast it's air horn for a long time. The truck follows David as he stops at a gas station to call his wife, who is upset at David for not confronting a man who made a pass at her the night before. The gas attendant tells David that his car needs a new radiator hose, but he ignores him and gets back on the road. The truck now blocks David's multiple attempts to go around him. At one point, the truck driver waves for David to go ahead, but as he does, an oncoming car almost hits David. He goes off road and speeds ahead of the truck, but the truck continues to follow at increasingly fast speeds. David peels off into a cafe's parking lot, crashing into a fence. He goes inside and gets some food, only to see that the truck has stopped. David tries to figure out who in the cafe is the driver and falsely accuses one man of being the driver, leading to David getting punched. He gets back on the road and is flagged down by a stranded school bus that needs a push. His car gets stuck and he panics and flees when he sees the truck approaching, but the truck actually helps the bus. The pursuit continues with the truck almost pushing David into an oncoming train and more high speed chases. David even pulls to the side of the road and takes a nap in hopes that the truck driver will move on. When he continues to drive, he finds the truck waiting for him just down the road. How will David be able to escape this unforgiving truck driver?

What did he say about my mustache?!

The reason why Duel works so well is that it can and does happen in real life. All of us experience bad driving, jerks who cut us off, people who don't signal, and general jackassery on a daily basis. Road rage is a very real thing and it takes real effort for people to not smash each other's heads in because they need to get home to watch Girls on HBO. There is also that creepy feeling that you are being followed. You know it's probably not true, but when you make a few turns and the car behind you makes the same exact turns, you start to get nervous. Richard Matheson really captures this fear in his story. One of the best things he does is to never show the driver. That allows the audience to project whatever they want onto this faceless maniac, similar to Michael Myers in Halloween. The movie is exciting and thrilling while still be scary at the same time. Just when you think the trucker has let up and David can go on, he reappears, more aggressive than ever. Duel is very Hitchcokian in that aspect.

Though he was still a young director at the time, Steven Spielberg really captured the dry, desolate California highways. He used some truly creative shots from different angles. Speeding shots from the hood of cars, closeups of David's face, and shots from cameras following in front and behind the cars make the audience feel like they are right there in the action. Dennis Weaver puts on a strong performance, especially considering that he really doesn't have any costars. He interacts with people here and there, but for the most part, it's just him and an unknown assailant that never speaks and is never revealed. We get to listen in to David's thoughts on what is occurring, such as in the cafe, and it's a great window into his current state of mind. We get fear, anxiety, anger, and confusion. These are all very real emotions that any of us would be having in the same situation. The truck driver is unrelenting and we just want David to make it out OK.

Keep on truckin'

While it may not be a traditional horror movie, Duel is very thrilling and scary on an everyday level. The story is thrilling and completely believable, making it all the more entertaining. Steven Spielberg really shines in this movie and it is no surprise he has gone on to win so many awards and make so many great movies. Dennis Weaver's performance really puts the movie over the top as he runs through the gamut of emotions and really acts without any help from costars. If you like Hitchcock and you like your horror set in the real world, you'll really enjoy Duel.


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