Friday, 5 February 2016

"The Duel" (1971) - A review.

Fig 1.
The Duel” (1971) by Steven Spielberg is a tale of man vs. machine. The man or Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) and the machine - an imposing truck with a faceless and largely unseen driver. Superficially, The Duel wears the colours of a simple chase movie, beginning with a small sleight against the truck driver when Mann overtakes him on the highway and culminating in an hour and a half of unwarranted revenging. Then why can it be said with confidence that The Duel is much more than that? Simply put, there is another narrative at play here, It’s a meta-narrative that lends depth to an otherwise shallow story. A seething stack of ideas barely viewable but from the edges.

The notion of emasculation is one of these ideas, for from the offset the viewer is given information in the form of a call-in on a radio show, wherein the caller proceeds to question his own place in the household and if it’s okay to call himself the man of the house if his wife is the breadwinner. A few replies later and he admits to being an embarrassing prospect. Embarrassing. In another scene where Mann is in a phone call to is wife, we learn that David did not confront a man that - his wife asserts - practically raped her. This sets the tone of the other narrative. For “a guy like David Mann, well, we'll soon find out that proving himself to be a man is one of his biggest concerns” (Wampler, 2015).

Fig 2.
Indeed, his quest to prove himself and his masculinity is the real narrative at play. And he couldn’t have a better foe to prove himself against. A hulking, smoke bellowing, monstrosity of a truck.”Its every edge is rough, its every surface coated in dirt, grime and oil.” (Wampler, 2015) Its negative characteristics heightened by a smart choice on Spielberg’s part, in most instances, to avoid directly showing the driver (there are instances where you can spy an arm here or there, which does break the illusion that the truck is something of a malevolent entity).  The tension is not solely born from the fact that we do not see the driver - “...The truck in Duel is one of the greatest on screen villains in Hollywood history. It has no lines of dialogue. It has no motive. It has no subtlety. It has only a blank, uncaring, skull-like stare and a kind of brooding bulk that plays off the fear of every driver passing a trucker on the highway.” (Orlove, 2013) The truck itself looks as if a polar opposite to Mann’s car and also his presence on the road, literally dwarfing him in most shots. Spielberg is very careful to show the viewer exactly who is in charge within any given scene. Another example of this visual power-play is the consistent use of shots that make Mann look small within his surroundings, shots from on high placing him in the center of the screen lends a sense of isolation to Mann also. And, in a particularly memorable scene, Mann tries to jump start a school bus with the front of his car, only for the children he is helping to laugh at him, all of this is framed on high as if the gods themselves were laughing at the struggle of Mann’s life. This is all inferred within cinematography alone, which must be celebrated.

Fig 3.
It is because of this groundwork that the ending of The Duel is perhaps, so effective, for as we see the truck effectively “dying” - it’s carcass lying on the underside of a cliff, its tyres rolling slowly coming to a stop with the black lifeblood of its oil slowly dripping out - we also share in Mann’s triumph. The sudden and violent assertion of his masculinity being a personal victory for his character.

The similarities between “The Duel” and the work of Alfred Hitchcock is stark in places. Particularly during the scene set in the diner, wherein Mann is trying to work out who drives the truck. It is no mistake that Mann finds himself sitting in a corner covered in pink, reinforcing the feeling of emasculation.Here, the cinematography shines as it generates a gripping paranoia; shots switch back between Mann and various truck drivers, close attention to their faces and clothing and then shots of the truck waiting outside interspersed throughout build the tension as it inevitably becomes too much for Mann to handle. An effective riff off of Hitchcock’s guiding hand in shots.

In shorter terms, The Duel is an example of what a director can add to an otherwise straightforward story. A brutal, yet brilliantly subtle and tense piece that contains perhaps the scariest truck in movie history. Brilliant.


Orlove, Raphael. ‘Duel is the best car movie you can watch on youtube right now’ Jalopnik.com [online] Available at: http://jalopnik.com/duel-is-the-best-car-movie-you-can-watch-on-youtube-rig-1308846079 [Accessed 5/2/2016]

Wampler, Scott ‘Exploring emasculation with duel’ birthmoviesdeath.com [online] Available at: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/03/04/exploring-emasculation-with-duel [Accessed 5/2/2016]


Fig 1. The Duel poster. [image] Available at: http://horrornews.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014_11_04B-DUEL.jpg

Fig 2. Mann vs. Machine. [image] Available at: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-DnXeAVPXAj8/VDxRgPaB6rI/AAAAAAAAAbM/C2fLREJYJcc/s1600/duel%2Bdavid.jpg

Fig 3. The Truck. [image] Available at: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/69/e6/ab/69e6ababe85d55edb1d7235a0a727519.jpg

Additional reading



1 comment: