Seeing Jaws on the big screen prompted me to dig out and watch one of my favourite Spielberg movies. It’s not one of his blockbusters but a low-key thriller made in the early ‘70s. My Dad introduced me to this film when I was quite young and it fed my love of all things American – the Peterbilt trucks, the lonely whistle of cross country trains, the endless highways, the small-town diners. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, first published in Playboy, it was one of Spielberg’s earliest films and it displays all of the storytelling flair that has become his trademark.
It has a great opening sequence. A red Plymouth Valiant (the colour deliberately chosen by Spielberg so it would stand out against the desert background) backs out of a suburban garage and negotiates city traffic as it travels onto a desert highway. There’s no sound other than the car engine and the radio as the driver flicks between stations. The scene is almost exclusively shot from the car at bumper level and the driver’s view through the windscreen. It’s brilliantly effective because not only does it establish what kind of man the driver is – joe normal – but that this film is essentially going to be about the vehicles and not the drivers. It’s a theme reinforced throughout by the interesting camera angles Spielberg employs – turning crankshafts, close ups of headlights and axles, wheels and license plates.
Unusually for a Spielberg film there is minimal use of music, Duel being one of the few films where Spielberg didn’t collaborate with John Williams. The soundtrack is chiefly percussive which really enhances the atmosphere and the main string motif, very reminiscent of Herrman’s classic music for Psycho, is used sparingly and reserved for real moments of action. It’s another effective move because all of that space builds tension.
The story is deceptively simple and therein lays its genius. A motorist, Dennis Weaver as salesman David Mann, is driving to a meeting and overtakes a slow moving and dirty tanker truck. Moments later the truck roars past him then slows down and blocks his way. Mann overtakes a second time and the truck blasts his air horn. It seems like a harmless piece of road rage but as the film progresses the truck relentlessly pursues Mann across the lonely desert highways attempting to run him off the road and kill him.
It becomes a gladiatorial contest – a fight for survival, David versus Goliath, him or it. Like so many great stories it puts an ordinary man in an everyday situation and then strips away all of the things that he relies on – reason, civilization, rules of law and order, other people – turning it into a nightmare. As Mann says in the movie during one of his inner monologues, ‘all the ropes that kept you hanging in there get cut loose and it’s like, there you are, right back in the jungle again.’
You really feel Mann’s isolation – the scene in the diner after the first major tangle with the truck, is excruciating. The truck has chased Mann down a mountain road bumping the car until Mann has lost control, swerved off the road and hit a fence opposite Chuck’s Cafe. The truck drives on. Mann enters the diner, shaken by his ordeal, but when he comes out of the bathroom the truck is parked outside. He then starts discreetly sizing up everyone in the diner wondering which one is his would-be assassin. Naturally everyone looks sinister. It’s a jumpy and paranoid scene with some great touches that ramp up the tension – like the waitress clattering the cutlery down on the table interrupting Mann’s inner monologue and startling him and audience alike. When Mann eventually confronts the man he thinks is the truck driver a fistfight breaks out. The café owner intervenes and the man drives away in a pick-up. As Mann is picking himself up and wondering who else it could be the truck engine roars to life and pulls out of the parking lot – he was never in the diner in the first place.
This leads on to another great device of the film – you never see the truck driver. It’s not important – the truck is a character in its own right. My Dad maintained that there was no driver – that it was supernatural – like Stephen King’s Christine (Duel reminds me very much of a King short story). That could be suggested by the unearthly roaring sound you hear at the end as the truck ‘dies’ (Spielberg later used the same sound effect in Jaws). But whatever the intention it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of leaving it to the audience’s imagination. Less is most definitely more (Michael Bay).
Surely the greatest part of the whole film is the scene with the school bus. It’s a masterpiece of sustained suspense. Mann has left the diner and has stopped to help a stranded bus full of school kids. The bus driver asks Mann to give him a push start – Mann reluctantly agrees, fearing that the car’s bumper will get caught under the rear bumper of the bus. This predictably happens and while the bus driver tries to help Mann bounce it loose the kids get off the bus and run around the lay-by. Mann suddenly sees the truck appear a little way down the road and come to a stop part way into a tunnel. “That bastard turned around and came back.” The truck headlights come on. Mann panics and manages to work the car loose and pull away just as the truck circles around and drives up behind them. Mann stops down the road to see what the truck will do and watches in disbelief as it gently shunts the bus back onto the road. It’s a clever and chilling moment as Mann realizes that he alone has been targeted. It’s personal.
The action rapidly escalates as the truck driver becomes more and more ruthless in his pursuit. There’s another great scene where Mann has stopped at Sally’s Snakerama, a gas station, to try and use the phone. The truck attacks before he has chance to call for help, destroying the phone booth and many of Sally’s cages letting loose her rattlesnakes and other creatures. The truck driver is now openly pursuing Mann with no regard for whoever or whatever might get in his way.
Showing real skill for controlling the tension Spielberg gives us a respite as Mann manages to temporarily escape and pull off the road, parking up behind an embankment next to an old junkyard. There is a fabulously eerie scene as Mann, exhausted, falls asleep and the camera shows varying shots of the junkyard – close-ups of broken headlights, rusted fenders, waving grass growing between the wrecks – with the red Plymouth Valiant always somewhere in the picture. Mann is shocked out of sleep by a freight train approaching on the track next to where he’s parked. A wonderful moment of tension and release.
The film now approaches the final showdown but before that can take place the rules of the contest, the duel, have to be established. Mann, sure that the truck has gone and his ordeal over, is stunned to find that it’s waiting for him around the bend. He attempts to flag down a passing car but the old couple driving are unwilling to get involved and drive away in terror as the truck starts reversing towards them down the road. Mann runs into the scrub at the side of the road but it stops within inches of his car then drives back up the road and resumes it’s original position. Mann tries to approach on foot but it drives further away.
Mann must be in the Valiant and he must face the truck alone.
Back in his car the truck allows Mann to pass and the final chase begins up into the mountains where Mann is confident he can escape, as the truck won’t be able to maintain speed on the steep gradients. However, the Valiant’s radiator hose fails (flagged in an early scene at a gas station) and the car begins to pour smoke, losing speed as the truck gains. Barely making it to the top he is then able to put it in neutral and gather speed for the descent. He loses control part way down, hits a rock wall and again, only just manages to pull away before the truck reaches him.
In the final scenes Mann leads the truck along a dirt road near a cliff edge and turns to face his pursuer. Using his briefcase to jam the pedal (a tried and tested ‘70s film manoeuver) he drives towards it throwing himself from the car as the vehicles collide, the car bursts into flames and both vehicles are driven over the cliff. The truck gives a final blast of its air horn as it crashes into the canyon. Mann’s savage dance of glee and triumph as he watches the wreck is primal. This is followed by silence apart from the dripping of oil and the slowing tick of spinning wheels from the wreckage as Mann sits on the cliff edge throwing stones into the canyon as the sun sets.
I never get tired of watching this film and no matter how many times I see it I never fail to get drawn in by the tension and atmosphere. In many ways it breaks a lot of movie conventions because there’s minimal soundtrack, hardly any dialogue and only one real character in the whole film and yet despite this (and a certain amount of early ‘70s cheesiness) it works.
It’s Jaws with a truck and if you haven’t seen it you should.
In fact go and do that…now.
Originally posted 2 August 2012