Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Duel", Steven Spielberg's first feature, still looks fresh today, with road rage in the California desert in 1970


I think that I saw Steven Spielberg’s first feature, “Duel”, on television back in 1971 when I was working for the Navy Dept.  But I barely recalled it, so I watched it on a Netflix DVD.  This is a “Director’s Cut”, with the original 74 minutes expanded to 90 minutes for European release, now from Universal (originally from ABC). 

The film is based on a short story by Richard Matheson, but this is obviously material that lends itself to visual, and not just verbal, manipulation.

In sum, the plot is “road rage” (like an episode of “Wild Tales” reviewed here Feb. 28). Dennis Weaver plays David Mann, an ironic name for the character, tormented by a rogue trucker with an unseen villain chasing him, after David passes him once on a two-lane road in the California high desert, on the way to meet a client.  The film becomes a metaphor for tests of his manliness.  We learn this when he makes a pay phone call to his wife (Jacqueline Scott) who is disappointed that he didn’t react more to another man’s chasing her at a social event.  He can’t protect his wife, and he can’t protect himself.

The world shows southern California as it really was in 1970, with pay phones, his Plymouth Valiant and other big Nixon-era gas guzzlers.  The rogue truck becomes a character.



The DVD contains a long interview with Spielberg, who explains how he worked as a 24-year-old filmmaker.  The original film was shot in TV aspect ratio (4:3) but the DVD plays in standard 16:9.  The DVD also interviews Matheson, who says that in the end the "everyman" prevails against all odds by his wits.  He says he never wrote another story in this genre afterwards. 
 
The picture above comes from Nevada, my trip, 2012.  

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