Duel (1971) – Behavioral Study of Human Reactions in Chaotic Moments
There are movies that you just start watching, having no idea what it has for you. The main motive on such moments might only be to kill time. But moments after you- glued to your seat- immerse into the film. While I started with Duel, I was on this mindset. The credits began to roll, nothing catchy to mention until I read the name Stephen Spielberg. So naive did I not know that Duel is the TV movie in which the auteur talent debuted. After this Steve made two more TV movies before The Sugarland Express (1974).
We watch some movies for visual pleasure, some for the plot and the story line, some other for screenplay. What interests me in Duel is the screenplay, designed to study the human behavior. Steve studies the characteristics of both the protagonists and antagonist.
Plot wise the movie is so simple. David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a decent business man, on an appointment, starts his official trip in his sedan on a two way Californian highway. On his way he encounters an old rusty truck. Unable to cope up the soot it exhausts he overtakes it. The truck soon advances and freaks him with blasting honks. The driver of the truck, whom we never see till the end, seem to be annoyed by David overriding the truck, begins his malicious chase. The game begins. It might sound strange, even bizarre, to imagine stretching a plot that has nothing else but a malevolent chaser tirelessly chasing his innocent victim, to hunt him down. But soon after minutes the film commences it turns out to be an edge-of-the-seat thriller. As a viewer the roaring engine of the massive devil and the Californian dry wind spraying dust on way, takes you to the place for real.
Few minutes on, into the film, the audiences hop into the sedan with pounding heart, with the ramming monster tailing behind in a maddening speed. The screenplay doesn’t bother to throw any details for the viewer to substantiate the extremity of malicious reaction of the truck driver. The plot is so tight that it unfolds as if its only interest relies on studying the emotional turmoil experienced by the victim at close quarters and literally disinterested in anything else.
The inventive camera angles are unique- for the 70s- rendering visuals that are tailor made for thrillers. If not for the angles and camera positions, in particular, inside the car, the viewer would never be able to virtually connect him with the character. The spectator not once gets the glimpse of the driver, hence his huge truck becomes his personification and every advance it makes, ever tire squeak it makes could be dubbed as his representation of the his furious face spitting hatred, which is never seen on screen. The background score effectively uses up the natural ambient sounds and keeps up with the pace of the film.
The entire movie is a visual experience with scarce dialogues. The tight editing that fills the screen with montages of the car and the truck intensifies the thrill. The camera explores every possible dimension of looking at both the vehicles making them characters instead of just being props.
Dennis Weaver as David Mann etches a realistic and natural performance of the character. With every sigh and soliloquy he portrays the anxiety of a normal human being puzzled about the uninvited trouble he is up to and self denial exemplifies his confused mental state. His performance urges the viewer to take his side naturally, desperately wanting him to escape from the ordeal, at least, if not over powering the truck.
The title ‘Duel’ if perceived from the psychological point of view, would take us into the core intention of the film and the director’s mind. Duel focuses on the behavioral study of a human reaction when subjected to tackle adverse, life threatening situations. There are moments where both the characters are shown with all their characteristic shades. The antagonist, who attempts directly to run over David, renders a helping hand to a stranded bus full of children and the fearing David in the final act traps the driver cunningly and saves himself from the danger. I read a quote somewhere that goes, “Don’t define your world in Black and White because there is so much hiding amongst the grey. Going through the moments in the film I was reminded of it.