Thursday, June 30, 2016

Duel

3.5/4

Starring: Dennis Weaver, Carey Loftin

Rated PG (probably for Terror/Violence)

Everyone has those times where there's some driver who seems to be actively trying to make their lives miserable.  I recall one terrifying experience where I had to play a game of chicken on the highway with a meathead in a Hummer.  Of course, stories like that are the exception rather than the rule.  Most times, the driver who becomes your mortal enemy for two minutes straight is simply distracted or not very skilled.  Unfortunately for David Mann (Weaver), he's going to run into an exception of the worst kind.

David Mann is a salesman driving from one unspecified destination to another.  His wife (Jacqueline Scott) wants him home on time, and David assures her he will be.  On the way to meet with a client, he gets stuck behind a gas truck so rusted that you could get tetanus just by looking at it.  It's belches out oily smoke that makes him cough, so naturally David passes the guy and continues on his way.  Then the truck passes him again.  When David tries again, the truck blocks him (gee, this sounds familiar).  And blocks him again.  Soon David is going to enter into the fight of his life against a remorseless and seemingly unstoppable killer.

"Duel" is one of those high-concept thrillers like "Speed" where the story is what wrenches the filmmakers will throw at the hero next.  Much of the success for a film like this depends on the skill of the filmmaker.  It is here that I should mention that it was directed by a fresh young talent by the name of Steven Spielberg.

Yes, that Steven Spielberg.  The one who went on to direct classics such as "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan."  Truth be told, this far from his best work, but as a first effort from a eager kid, it's a great thrill ride and shows that even at that young age, he knew what he was doing.  He knows that editing is the heart and soul of a movie like this, and he knows how to use camera angles and lens lengths to get his effect.  The camera shots are tight and manipulative, and the pacing is relentless.

There's only one actor who has more than token screen time, and that's Dennis Weaver, who was famous for playing Chester in "Gunsmoke."  It's not a demanding part, since he's simply trying to outsmart a killer and live to tell about it.  But he does get us on his side.

His co-star is a Peterbilt semi-truck.  Spielberg chose this model because it had a face.  And it does.  Like Michael Myers in "Halloween" (made 7 years later), it's an expressionless face, but this time it's trapped in a robotic scream as it hurtles down the highway toward its target.

This was originally envisioned as a Movie of the Week until Universal realized what they had on their hands.  Its success overseas (where it was released in theaters) prompted the studio to have the young Spielberg shoot more scenes to stretch it out to feature length.  Surprisingly, or considering that it's Spielberg, perhaps not, there are few places where it lags (the diner scene is one such instance).

Roger Ebert coined the phrase "bruised forearm" movie for movies like this.  If you watch it with someone, I guarantee that you're going to have big purple splotches on your arms for the next few days.

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