Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Duel: The Passion of Youth
Written Review by David Carter
If there is such a thing as a movie sense—and I think there is (I know fruit vendors and cab drivers who have it and some movie critics who don’t)—Spielberg really has it.
-Pauline Kael on Steven Spielberg’s theatrical debut, Sugarland Express
At the full risk of sounding like a fanboy with a bias as long as the Mississippi river, I just want to say that some days I get furious thinking about how good Steven Spielberg is as an artist. It’s that full-on Salieri in Amadeus style jealousy of not only realizing that the type of genius some people have isn’t just untouchable, it’s almost an anomaly. Steven Spielberg seems to be a man who was designed at a genetic level to make cinema. If you watch a movie made by him you will see the craft of a person who stages a scene or moves a camera the same way I eat a slice of pizza; with efficiency and boundless artistry. He’s somehow simultaneously flashy and functional. For a small example of that, head over to youtube and watch Tony Zhou’s and Taylor Ramos’s video on the “Spielberg Oner”.
It illustrates how so much of this stuff seems to come second nature to him. Which makes sense. Spielberg is a wunderkind and prodigy turned elder statesman and god for this generation. He’s the rare artist that not only didn’t suffer a loss of spark and ambition that comes with age, that spark ignited into a full-on inferno and as far as ambition… look, he’s made some stinkers but you could never accuse him of phoning it in. The times he has made a belly flop it’s usually because he was wrong for the material and even those films fall into the category of “interesting failure” and you could never call them outright bad (Hook may be a mess only kept afloat by a generation of people with fond memories, but most directors would kill to make a movie that good). But even as a legend, that young man’s drive has been with him every step of the way. When you look back at what types of movies he was actually making as a young man, you see someone who could think quick on their feet while also painting a paranoia panorama as pulse-pounding as anything that Frankenheimer or Hitchcock could have whipped up.
Which bring us to Duel, Spielberg’s first feature-length film after impressing the higher-ups at Universal with his short film Amblin, earning him the cache to work on tv projects the studio was producing. Most notably his work on the anthology series Night Gallery, where at the age of 21 (Why am I sweating? Why are the walls closing in on me?!?!) he directed the notorious and legendary Joan Crawford. While she was at first alarmed by his age, even she eventually came around to the young virtuoso after seeing the work he could do. Afterward, a friend of his read Richard Matheson’s short story “Duel” in an issue of Playboy and pointed out to Spielberg that the material was perfect for him. Spielberg agreed and after showing Paramount the rough cut of the Columbo TV movie he had been working on, they knew they could trust him on a feature-length TV movie. Spielberg’s process on the movie has the crackle of someone with something to prove. The studio gave him 10 days to shoot, telling him he would have to shoot most of the chases on a sound stage since they didn’t believe it was possible to shoot on location and stay on schedule. He fought to have it on location and miraculously (if you’ve seen the movie you will understand) somehow only went 3 days over schedule. This may have been due to the fact that instead of a traditional storyboard (a must for shooting action efficiently) Spielberg made essentially a linear map of the entire path the vehicles take, only with what happens where (even non-action beats like a suspense-filled layover at a diner). Spielberg’s moxie could fill the grand canyon at this point in his career.
The actual movie itself feels like it could have fit right inside a Night Gallery-esque anthology series about strange but supernatural happenings in an anxiety-filled world. The premise of the movie is simple. Dennis Weaver of A Touch of Evil fame plays David Mann (this last name is not an accident) a businessman on his way to a meeting. His life is surrounded by a sense of emasculation. He listens to a drive-time radio show where the caller complains that he doesn’t feel like the man of his house anymore. While in Mann’s own house, his wife complains to him about his inability to stop a coworker from nearly sexually assaulting her during a dinner party. To top it all off, there’s a giant semi-truck driving like a maniac as he’s trying to get the meeting. It all begins with a simple transgression, David tries to pass the truck which is driving lethargically and belching black smoke back in his direction. The faceless driver of the truck doesn’t take too kindly to the harmless show of force and punishes David for it for the remainder of the entire 90 minutes of the film.
And so begins the titular duel. The battle between a man so full of vile toxic masculinity that he wants to murder someone for a petty slight and a man just looking to recapture any sort of control in his life. The movie is just one long extended suspense scene punctuated by bouts of paranoia, like when David stops at a diner and notices that the madman’s truck is parked outside and doesn’t know which person in the diner he could be. Or the sheer terror the many directly attempted murders the truck driver pushes David’s way. The truck and the driver himself really does feel like a dry run for what the movie Jaws would be, down to men with varying degrees of wounded and unhealthy masculinity. As even learned on an extra feature of the film, Spielberg reuses sound effects and mimics shots from Duel when it comes to certain scenes involving the shark. The chase scenes themselves are ingenious. You see the early hints on Spielberg’s unbounded roving camera eye as we see how seamlessly the camera glides from car to truck in some truly tense chase scenes. He also always tried to shoot the chases against a cliff wall so that the vehicles looked like they were going 100 mph (due to the rocks and shrubbery that go zipping by) when in reality they were only going about 20 or 30 mph in any given shot. The movie also involves the low budget filmmaking magic of Dennis Weaver performing his own stunt of jumping out of the way just as a semi truck comes barreling towards him in a phone booth (complete with an accidental Spielberg cameo! He’s in the reflection of the phone both holding a camera). The last 15 minutes of the movie is, without a doubt, some of my favorite action filmmaking put to screen. The duel comes to a bloody and glorious end and it’d be criminal to spoil that here.
I could go on and on and on. But needless to say, the stuff on display here is why I love visiting the early work of maestros. You see bits and pieces of things that they’ll expand on later but also something that they have to lose in the process. The ingenuity, the improvisation, and the thought that the sky’s the limit. Spielberg himself has gone on record saying he couldn’t make this film again in the same way. He wouldn’t know how. To me, that’s a magical part of creation. To leave a stamp of who and what you once were on a page for everyone to see for a long time. Even yourself.