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Duel (Steven Speilberg) 1971

    Duel, Steven Speilberg’s oft-celebrated TV film, has a reputation as a white-knuckled, bare-bones, reductionist suspense classic. It’s true that the film wrings a lot of running time out of its high-concept premise (a man is stalked by an unseen maniac truck driver), but either due to budgetary constraints or Speilberg’s relative inexperience, the exercise feels more like a standard student’s film school assignment than a satisfying work on its own terms. It’s filled with a plethora of showy technique, but film represents the apex of the predominance of style over substance that’s present in most modern action films. There is obviously an exceptionally small amount of back story here, and there’s only really one character to speak of. When the protagonist (he’s named, but really has little personality to speak of) encounters other people, they all feel like the stereotypes that you think you know just by looking at them, and Speilberg never sees them as anything beyond that. The killer truck that chases him is shown to have a driver, but we never see his face. There is precious little in the way of motivation behind his extreme actions, and we’re expected to buy the preposterous premise on the faith that Speilberg will keep us enraptured with these few elements.

    Unfortunately, Duel doesn’t work at all for me. The effects of Speilberg’s show-offy plate spinning wear out well before the film ends. The paucity of character makes me feel that the events shown in the film are scornfully mocking the protagonist. Speilberg seems so intent on pushing the film’s thrill quotient up, and he exorcises anything remotely resembling personality from the picture. By the time the lead’s car’s radiator hose bursts, we’re beyond caring. The fish eye lens Speilberg uses in his agonized extreme close-ups of the “hero” make him look less like a human than a special effect, which is rather typical for the director. He doesn’t ever seem to be interested in sympathizing with anyone in the film. It’s ironic that he has such a reputation as a humanist, especially when compared to a director like Kubrick (who is often described as cold but simply strives for a less apparent type of emotion). It is no coincidence that the lead character in Speilberg’s A.I. was a walking, talking special effect. Speilberg mostly seems unable to simply accept a character as a human being. He must always improve in some way. I remember that, in response to the Danish Dogme movement, Speilberg once expressed interest in making a Dogme film. It’s not surprising that he never followed through with the intent, as that isn’t the kind of film that the guy makes. Duel seems to be the start of his fascination with presenting humanity as one, or at best a puppet that gawks at the wonderland around them, and the trend has continued relatively unabated throughout his career. Though Duel might have had a relative freshness when it premiered, it has come to represent much of what is “wrong” with the current cinema. Still, many have no problem with Hollywood’s current status quo, so the film should continue to serve them well.



Jeremy Heilman