Thursday, 1 May 2014
David Mann is a fussy neurotic who makes the mistake of discovering his dick on an anonymous Californian highway. Stuck behind a massive tanker truck that looks like a scaled up toy, Mann overtakes, enraging the vindictive lorry driver. Steven Spielberg's theatrical (in Europe at least) début is pure incident, building a pressure cooker narrative out what would otherwise be a dull car journey.
Duel is built out of these long haul rhythms, beginning with a disengaged drive. The radio splutters away, registering low in the sound mix, a grade or two beneath the consistent, relaxing sounds of a car maintaining a steady speed. Duel's opening minutes stress safety, conjuring up sights and sounds last experienced when you were very young and in the back of your parent's car, sleepy and safe, on the way to some distant holiday destination.
A vague sense of paternal security is established, then ruthlessly vandalised. First, Mann's masculinity is undermined by a quick collect call to an indifferent wife. Mann feebly apologises for failing to defend her honour at some drunken ass-grabbing party. Mann's wife reads as bored - this particular failing well known to her. Back on the road, Mann is hounded by the truck driver he overtook. The harassment is petty, it seems emotionally driven. It's not a monstrous other trying to gobble up prey, that would imply a distinct purpose and economy of action. Duel's encounters are instead a sustained kind of bullying, designed to emaciate Mann, making him feel worthless.
Power and agency are denied to him, any attempt to equalise or thwart the chase are batted aside by the inescapable, omnipotent truck driver. Mann is completely powerless. Away from these impotence set-pieces, Richard Matheson's script and Dennis Weaver's performance combine to create an impressive sketch of frail, withered masculinity. When Mann attempts to take a time out in a roadside cafe full of truck drivers, it's clear he's an interloper.
Mann has difficulty even navigating the space - there are just too many men in there, radiating their louche, cowboyish power. Mann dithers, unsure how to proceed. Locating a table in an empty corner away from the 'real' men, he stumbles over his lunch order, failing to match the politeness his waitress shows him. Every idle glance is contextualised as a threat, Mann driving himself mad imagining ways in which he can placate this room full of tormentors. Buy them booze? That's what these people like, right? In Duel everything is a threat, the hero doesn't even want to meet the challenge, he just wants to escape.