HOLLYWOOD – SpielBlog is a soup to nuts film by film rundown of Steven Spielberg’s film career.
The 1955 Peterbilt Truck that will terrify Mann and chase him across the mountains and through the desert is everything that he is not. It’s dirty, where Mann dabs at his neat mustache with a napkin, spewing foul smoke. It’s assertive where Mann is deferential. It seeks conflict. It’s industrial and working class compared to Mann’s office stiff wardrobe and monogrammed briefcase. And whereas Mann is the embodiment of male anxiety, the Peterbilt is basically a large cock on ten wheels, loaded with the number plates of previous victims.
The conflict escalates with a black sense of humour. What is apparently a misunderstanding and then vindictiveness, slowly escalates into a deadly hunt. The relative sizes of the car and the truck, the speeds and the road are expertly conveyed. This is Mad Max level brilliance and yet was filmed in 13 days (three days over schedule) and on location against the wishes of a studio who wanted the whole thing done on a sound stage with back projections.
Along the way Mann meets up with a variety of grotesques who show for the first time Spielberg’s vision of a banally-indifferent-when-not-actually-corrupt America. These are the same people who will want to keep the beaches open because it’s the Fourth of July weekend. Mann’s stop at a roadside eatery is full of menace. Any of these people could be guilty and Mann hasn’t the confidence to just say to the room “Hey, who’s driving that rig out there?” Of course, he picks on the wrong guy – mostly every decision Mann makes is frustratingly obviously wrong. Mann takes plot-convenience naps and seems blissfully unaware until the last second that a massive truck is heading for his phone box. Weaver’s performance is obviously what Spielberg wanted – he was a huge fan of Touch of Evil – but you can’t help but wonder what Richard Dreyfuss would have done with the part.
Just how much the world is in sympathy with the truck and out of sympathy with Mann is hit home again and again. From the clientele of the truck stop to the school bus driver, everyone seems to distrust Mann and be indifferent to the Peterbilt. The funniest example of this is the woman with the rattlesnake ranch right next to the phone box – ‘What a weird place to keep snakes!’ Mann exclaims. (By the way look in the reflection of the phone box and you can see Steven Spielberg standing beside the cameraman and watching the scene. Charitably we could say this is his Hitchcockian cameo for what is essentially a Hitchcockian thriller, something the score is relentless in pointing out.)
Stripped of all help and isolated, Mann must face the truck alone. The final showdown is expertly conveyed. Shot from multiple angles with seven cameras, Spielberg ended up only using the one shot in slow motion for the climactic crash and cliff dive. It is this kind of decisive restraint that marks him out as a director of genuine vision, even so early on. The way we have read ‘Inflammable’ on the back of the truck all this time, but then it doesn’t explode when it goes over the cliff. This is 1971 so endings always have to have a hint of the ambiguous rather than the audience pleasing catharsis.
Duel got good ratings and reviews as TV Movie of the Week and ultimately some re-shoots to make it feature length. Spielberg used it as his calling card, touring it round festivals in Europe. It was a TV movie that looked like it should be on the big screen. And that was exactly where Steven Spielberg was heading.