Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Duel (1971)

The pitch for this film must have been, "Dennis Weaver vs. a giant truck. What more do you need?" What more, indeed. For his first feature film (originally a TV movie, but later expanded for international release), Steven Spielberg made a film so economical that it borders on absurdism. There is literally nothing to this film other than Weaver and that truck, and that's for the best. Honing the focus down so brutally taps into elements of the primal, with the mystery trucker edging into mythic territory. In other words, it's the simplicity that gives it the power it has -- Weaver's salesman becomes a panicked Everyman and the truck is the menacing Other which must be overcome. The beautiful thing is that once this story is over, so is the film. There's no postscript, no epilogue, no scene leaving the door open for a sequel. There is only a final shot that is mournful and majestic. The young Spielberg makes the most of the opportunity to show off his then-burgeoning chops, with the quieter scenes (i.e. the diner scene) just as expertly directed as the chase scenes. Additionally, Spielberg's tight, effective use of angles and staunch refusal to give us a look at the evil trucker fills the film with a sense of menace that is palpable enough to punch. There's good use of the setting, too, with the stark desert landscape nicely serving as a visual illustration of the film's sparer-than-spare aesthetic. One wonders if the virtuosity-addicted Spielberg of today would have the patience to make something so rigorous.

Grade: A-


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