Steven Spielberg does “big” really well. Big sharks, big emotions, big concepts, big themes. Many of his movies could be described as “sweeping” in their historical perspectives or emotional and physical vistas: Schindler’s List, E.T., Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., War Horse, Lincoln. These are hefty films—movies with weight, meaning, significance. Even his “lighter” fare is often huge in scope—think Jurassic Parkor Close Encounters of the Third Kindor the Indiana Jones movies. Dinosaurs! Aliens! Nazis and snakes!
Of course, the flip side of all this big, sweeping, hefty filmmaking is that you can only reach those heights if you’re grounded in something elemental. And Spielberg knows that—he knows that you can’t get the gorgeous Jurassic Park theme triumphantly playing over a gorgeous landscape of gigantic creatures unless you’re rooted, at the end of the day, in something very small and pure. A family. A piece of amber. A longing for something primitive—for the past—for a vision of Earth as it used to be.
If many of Spielberg’s films are marathon novels, Duel is a sonnet—it has room to play because of its formal constraints. Shot in a breathtakingly compact two weeks—primarily with five cameras mounted in various places on the two main vehicles, often having to do a take in just one go and roll with it—the film careens through its first three quatrains full of paranoia and sweat and controlled breathing and gasoline, only to hit that volta and make a beautiful turn into iron and sheer will and the overwhelming momentum of man’s desire to return home.1
The plot of the movie is quite simple: A man driving home from a business trip is terrorized by an unhinged, malicious truck. Not a truck driver—no, we never actually see the driver. Just…a truly ugly behemoth of a truck. So we watch man versus machine. David versus Goliath. Purposeful character against seemingly purposeless and unknown evil. Ninety minutes of tight, mean, tense driving—a movie as a balloon filling up with air to the point of bursting.
SOUND AND SILENCE
The first thing you hear is the sound of a car starting up, and you watch, from the car’s perspective, as you back slowly out of a suburban garage. A slow montage of streets—city driving, highway driving, deserted country roads—first accompanied only by the quiet sounds of the motor and the brakes and the other cars on the road, then underpinned with the radio.
David Mann (a rigidly haunted Dennis Weaver), the car’s driver and protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak for a long time. At 5 minutes and 34 seconds, he coughs. Soon after, he speaks a line, then falls silent again.
The click of the turn signal, the wind outside the car. Spielberg punctuates these ambient sounds with extreme close-ups: Weaver’s thumb on the wheel, a partial shot of the side of his face. The film slides surreptitiously into John Cage territory: the soundtrack is silence, the kind of silence you get when you experiment with solitude—the sound of your heart, the sound of your lungs, the sound of your blood cells creeping through your veins. Then the loud roar of the truck you thought you’d left far behind screaming alongside as it passes you, cuts you off. “Hey!” Weaver shouts, the “Hey!” intoned just like the “Hey!” at the beginning of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” But instead of a song, there’s a motor, a hand slapping exasperatedly against the wheel.
Spielberg has called this “my first silent movie;”2having been given a pretty spare script to begin with—penned by sci-fi/horror writer Richard Matheson—he claims to have cut 50% of what little dialogue Matheson had written, and says, “If I’d had final cut in those days, I would have cut the dialogue even further back.” The silence of the thing creates extra space for physicality and action; this, then, exists in tension with the confined nature of filming practically the entire movie with the main character inside a car. Dennis Weaver does wonders with this performance that has to exist in huge tiny moments—he reads, indelibly, as a man on the run trying not to be on the run. The camera lingers on his face as he squints, licks his lips, widens his eyes, sweats, furrows his brow, distorts his mouth.
This tension—between action and inaction, silence and expression—drips quietly into the implied backstory of his character. When Weaver calls home (a scene inserted to reach the 90-minute theatrical runtime), he apologizes, cryptically, for “last night,” only to come up against his wife’s still-wounded wall:
“I really don’t even want to talk about it.”
“Don’t you think maybe we ought to?”
“No, because if we talk about it we’ll just get into a fight, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
There’s not just silence on the road, there’s silence in their relationship, too. Perhaps, after all, it’s not a silent film, but something more like literary modernism—fascinated by the fragmentation of contemporary life, the broken communication, the way we all, in the end, drift into passive paralysis till human voices wake us, and we drown. The wife speaks of what seems to be an incident, the night before—perhaps at a small dinner party, perhaps just at a dinner between two families—of sexual harassment, or maybe even sexual assault. Dennis Weaver, it seems, did nothing. He hangs up the phone, framed by the open door of a dryer from which a woman in the foreground is unloading clothes—the passive, weak man seen in the circle of a woman’s work. Behind him is his car, then the truck. He’s circumscribed by the pieces of the world conspiring to keep him from any forward motion.3(Does his anger at the helplessness of his position act as the fuel for his attempt to defeat The Truck? Does The Truck stand for misandric feminism? For the forces aligning to Keep The Mann4 Down?)
Fitting, perhaps, that the battle he is locked in on the road is a silent one. And we end in silence, too—Mann’s breathing slows. The sun sets. We see him, in an orange-red silhouette, tossing rocks silently into the void. The credits roll mutely.
(Well, okay, there is one sound that matters—the sound of the truck as it groans into oblivion. The awful, desperate tones of tons of metal coming apart, an engine turning over for the last time. And yes, when the shark dies in Jaws and we see its broken body falling through the oblivious ocean, the sound we hear is the same one; Spielberg asked his sound effects editor to use the “death rattle” of the truck in that moment. It’s a chilling, awful sound: something soulless collapsing.)
OKAY, WAIT, ISN’T THIS JUST A PROTO-JAWS, MAN PITTED AGAINST SOME RANDOM FORCE OF EVIL THAT WON’T STOP UNTIL ONE OF THEM IS DESTROYED, WITH THE HIGHWAY REPLACING THE OCEAN AND THE QUESTIONS OF MASCULINITY BOILING INSIDE A SINGLE MAN INSTEAD OF THREE?
There is a paranoia that bleeds into many great ‘70s films, a paranoia that reflects the cultural crisis of the time, that manages to be political and social and personal all at the same time, that falls heavily onto the shoulders of white male protagonists—the first glimpse of a real threat to them that cinema allowed. Think The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, Parallax View, Apocalypse Now, THX 1138, All The President’s Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…this is a decade saturated with men who fear some looming, oppressive structure and then see their fears come true. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but their paranoia is never idle. Manson’s girls really were out there. The hook really was left in the car door.
Matheson, interestingly, generated the idea for his story after a real run-in with a truck in Grimes Canyon just after learning of JFK’s assassination. In Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of A Film Career, Steven Awalt quotes Matheson as saying of his own terrifying incident with a madcap truck driver: “We were screaming out the windows with as much fury about [Kennedy’s] assassination as about him trying to kill us.” Baked into the dough of this film, then, is this larger, creeping American paranoia—the second shooter on the grassy knoll, the golden boy president gunned down in a crowd, the pink dress splattered with blood, the car still rolling, the idea that something lovely and possible and open is ending. The car can’t be a convertible anymore—it needs bulletproof windows, a solid roof. No one is safe.
This creeping paranoid aesthetic blankets Dennis Weaver from the early minutes of the film. The second time he passes the truck, it lets loose a loud blare of its horn, and you see his face clock frustration and then a hint of fear. Never has mirror-checking been more fraught. We watch him cycle through the myriad emotions of someone caught in a systemic conspiracy—questioning (Am I seeing this? Am I experiencing this?), fear (Am I a target of this?), anger (I must destroy this!), resignation (Now what?). The lack of a visible driver to villainize ensures that the paranoia stays somewhat mysterious, even supernatural; the film never becomes about a terrible person. It is always ever instead about the eternal struggle of the individual against an insidious, unnameable systemic rot. The small glimpses we get of the driver create an aura of even more tension, and presage the way that we barely ever see much of the shark in Jaws; Spielberg plays into the long tradition of horror movies that realize that withholding the image of the monster is always scarier than revealing it.5Like the centuries-old titillation of seeing a woman’s ankle, the glimpse of the driver’s boot beneath the truck, or his hand adjusting the rear-view mirror, sends shivers up the spine. You feel like Lila Crane creeping up on the back of Mother’s head in Psycho. What would we see if the head were to turn around?
One of the most indelible scenes in the movie unfolds after Weaver, rattled and cornered—realizing with terrified dread that this truck isn’t just an annoyance but rather some kind of primitive foe that means, literally, to kill him—crashes into a fence across from a small bar/café. He limps out of the car, sweat staining his shirt. A handheld camera follows him, paralleling his shakiness as he enters the café, tries to gather himself again, to regain the strength to get back on the road. Exiting the bathroom, he tells himself the nightmare is over; we know we have an hour of nightmare left.
The dramatic irony stretches into cut-with-a-knife-thick tension: the truck is parked out front. What follows is a masterpiece of paranoid atmospherics, as Weaver’s character attempts to determine which person, in the restaurant, is his adversary. It’s a genius scene that reminds me, presciently, I suppose, of something out of The Thing; which of these seemingly normal people is a carrier, in fact, of invisible evil? And will I go crazy before I root the evil out? The camera lingers on the face of a man in a cowboy hat, his boots—but is the camera giving us a privileged perspective of the villain, or is it leading us further into the panicked and irrational spiral of Weaver’s tangled synapses, his anxiety headache? The half-whispered voiceover draws us into his attempts at logic derailed by fear. We are so close on Dennis Weaver’s face that it hurts.
Everyone, suddenly, reads as suspicious.
And Weaver’s character is no Joe Turner, no Woodward or Bernstein, no Jack Terri; he doesn’t have a plan, a plot, a pen, a momentous recording, a female accomplice, a newspaper, a gun. He has a small red car, a little worse now for the wear, and he has the open road.
There are no highways like California highways. The old ones are too narrow for today’s wide vehicles, peppered with lovely old tunnels, ribboned with brush. There’s a particular loneliness to driving in California; a sense that everyone else, too, is siloed in their personal vehicles, trying to traverse the city’s sprawl on whatever is left in their tank of gas, Joan Didioning their way through interchanges. If you live here you recognize it right away: the rolling hills, the bottlenecks, the desert stretches reeking with Steinbeck despair. A California highway is desperate in a way you don’t see in Utah (too beautiful) or New York (too populated) or South Carolina (too laid back) or Texas (too purposeful). A California highway could have a blaze running alongside it any minute.
It is always, in California, a longer journey than you want it to be. There aren’t enough trees to feel protected; you get the sense someone could pick you off from a distance away if they had the right vantage point. Pieces of our highways have literally crumbled into the ocean. Other pieces go through farming areas where the stench of cow death hangs in your car for miles after you’ve passed the miserable animals by. If you are on a California highway trip there will be a point at which you realize you need gas but you aren’t near enough to a gas station. There will be a song on the radio that reminds you of someone you once loved and now can’t love anymore. There will be a mountain pass that demands that you press the gas pedal down far harder than you want to just to get up over the top—and then hits you with sign after sign begging you to apply your brakes as you careen down into a valley. There will be a car pulled over, a woman touching her face as she talks on her cell phone, squinting into the stupidly lovely sunset that only makes you feel more alone.
There’s something specific, too, about California paranoia. The way the desert turns men crazy. The Santa Ana winds, the way the imbalance in the atmosphere sparks fires, destruction, murders. The haunting feeling that the sky is only allowed to be so blue because somewhere someone is paying for it. The gloss covering up the corrosion. California, I’m coming home, sings Joni Mitchell, and we know, somehow, she won’t be happy even there. The land of milk and honey that promised jobs and delivered Hoovervilles. The ground that yielded gold in just big enough amounts to inflate dreams in order to pop them. The old missions whose oppressive presence is spun into elementary school field trips. The town by the beach, abandoned due to its location in the flight path of an airport.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the function of ruins in our imaginations. Sure, intellectually, we know that everything, essentially, is rooted in ruins. We build towns on top of old towns. We layer paint on top of old paint. We spread concrete over cracks; we plant plants on top of graves; we spend thousands of dollars to visit old, crumbling marble structures that meant something to someone once in a way that wasn’t rooted in an idealized version of the past. There are more people who have died than there are living.6America is a land of quiet ruins. It is easier to pretend that European sailors alighted to discover the fresh, green breast of the new world than it is to remember the mass murder that had to unfold in order to get America As We Know It. And even Nick Carraway sees the ruins hiding in memory’s palimpsest—its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house. The ruin paves the way for progress while also offering up the addictive sap of fantastic nostalgia—look how far we’ve come, and oh, wouldn’t you have loved to have been there when?
The man on the radio in the opening minutes of Duel can’t fill out his census: Since he married that woman 25 years ago, you see, he lost his position as head of the family. Where there was once hierarchy—patriarchy—structure is starting to crumble. It’s 1971 and some women don’t want their husbands to be in charge anymore. It’s 1971 and a gallon of gas is 33 cents and Charles Manson got the death penalty and the voting age was lowered to 18 years old and the Pentagon Papers were published and women finally got the right to vote in Switzerland and Greenpeace was born because we were starting to see that this world we’d trusted for so long, these systems we counted on—and by “we,” of course, I mean mainstream white Americans, because god knows there were a whole lot of other people who hadn’t trusted these system in a very, very long time, if ever—were built on shaky ground, were rooted in something rotten, were heading towards collapse. “Nevertheless, I was wondering—how should I answer that question?” the voice on the radio says. The question of whether, if he doesn’t hold a job, if he changes diapers, the man could still be considered “the head of the family.” A complaint—he’d known he wanted to divorce his wife since the first six months of their marriage.
Dennis Weaver listens carefully. Squints.
“Talk about pollution,” he says, as the diesel fumes from his eventual adversary seep into his car. Man is breathing in the exhaust of his own existence.
The truck, notably, looks like it’s been around since the dawn of time. There are a collection of old license plates on the rusted, brown, peeling cab—conquests from cars the truck has previously defeated, we may wonder? Everything about the truck is broken, antiquated—a relic of a previous era, a representation of an old world that didn’t regulate smog or check brakes or have women that worked full time. The truck is the past, the ugly past, rearing its head again to stall your momentum, the Confederate flag on the bumper in front of your car at the stoplight, the blood beneath the foundation of your house. (Spielberg wrote that movie, too, about the house built on top of the Native graveyard. He has a nose for the way American suburbia is propped up by capitalism and genocide.)
Do you see how this film is a poem? It slips so easily into metaphor, synecdoche.
By the end of the film, we are far outside of civilization. There is no water, just rock and sand and rusted gates perhaps of an old, abandoned farm or house or structure. Mann’s car is hanging on by a thread. The bumper is coming off, pieces of the body are peeling off the frame, one headlight is shot out, some wheels are pushed in, it is bumping along on fumes and will. The score, less minimal now at the end, plays shrill Psycho violins.
But, like the audience’s feeling as Marion’s car emerges from the swamp at the end of Hitchcock’s great, claustrophobic thriller, there is a sense here that imprisoning evil—or sending it off a cliff—never quite works. There is wreckage, laying now beneath settling dust. There is the great groan of something malicious dying. The sand coming off the cliff blankets the mechanical monstrosity; the Earth will triumph and diesel will sink away. And there is Mann, first hopping around the edge of the cliff in triumph, then, in a great moment of subtle acting, settling into a deeper sort of realization. The truck is gone. But that central, elemental quest—a man trying to get back home—hasn’t been fulfilled. The film has come unmoored from geography; Mann’s journey has been anything but linear. Where is he now? What’s the likelihood of anyone coming by any time soon? He has no vehicle anymore, no phone booth anywhere nearby, no possessions to speak of. And his wife, begging him to be home by 6—say he was to find a way home, or even just a way to contact her. Who’s to say she’d take him back? What remains for Mann but the ruins of his own personal life, professional life, transportation, sanity?7
And so we become our own phoenixes, perhaps, throwing rocks aimlessly into the ashes, breathing in the fumes of our progress, throwing a last, paranoid glimpse at the lens encircling us. Hoping to rise again.
This desire, of course, is the most primitive desire Spielberg engages with, and you see it in so many of his films—I could start listing them but I’d basically end up listing his entire filmography. The magnetic pull of some home base, some place that could embrace you and accept you and recognize you for who you really are—isn’t that what the arc of everyone’s life bends towards?
I do wonder what his second silent movie was.
And there are so many circles in this movie, once you start looking for them! The circle of the side-view mirror, the circles of the tunnel openings—Mann’s character is surrounded, wreathed, fragmented and engirdled. About 10 minutes from the end of the movie, we suddenly get a new angle, one we haven’t seen yet: Mann seen from below, his head rimmed by the steering wheel.
I mean, come on, his name is MANN.
I will never forget watching Signs in a theater and feeling the entire movie deflate the moment the alien appeared on-screen.
I am really trying not to talk about Jaws too much here, but it seems worth pointing out that the end of that film feels so hopeful because we watch Brody and Hooper swimming to shore together. Brody has overcome his fear of the water, both have survived, the old version of masculinity—Quint as ruin—and the evil force have both died, and what remains is a more intelligent and empathetic American man who will come home to save the town and reunite with his family. Not so for Mann.