I happened upon a 1971 made for TV movie called Duel. I was looking for something else, but the film caught my eye. It starred Dennis Weaver and was Stephen Spielberg’s film directing debut. The story and screenplay were written by Richard Matheson who had published a short story version in Playboy earlier that year and had a considerable CV including Twilight Zone notches on his belt. The whole thing was filmed in two weeks for $450,000 before an ABC TV broadcast on November 13, 1971. I asked around and quite a few friends had not only seen and recalled the film, but more than a few quite fondly remembered it.
Good—they should. The movie is great. Since this entry is going to ruin the ending, best to go ahead and watch it quickly before reading on. I’ll wait, it is on YouTube ….Done? Ok, good.
So, recap. Weaver plays David Mann, a salesman driving through the California desert to get to a sale. He drives a bright red Plymouth, and a few commenters noted that the car itself is a sort of co-star. Early on we learn that Mann and his wife are having a rough time, but that is all for background. Spielberg later said he wanted Weaver to play Mann because Weaver had a flare for portraying anxiety on screen.
While winding and twisting on the roads, Mann finds himself stuck behind a hulking late model fuel truck. It is a dusty dirty rattly behemoth anticipating the vehicular cast of Road Warrior. The truck has the word “flammable” just visible through the grime. The truck belches out oily smoke which flows into Mann’s car. He coughs and wipes his hair and utters the awkward line, “talk about pollution!” Finally, Mann sees his line, and passes the truck. Spielberg makes sure we can hear the thundering engine and rattling panels as the camera passes by. So far so good. But soon, the truck suddenly passes Mann, and now the two are locked in game of road rage on an epic scale. Mann soon realizes that his nemesis is out for more than lane space as the truck tail gates him at close to 100 miles per hour, rams his rear bumper, and even tries to shove the stopped Plymouth into the passing cars of a train at a railroad crossing. The truck even tries to kill Mann while he is in a phone booth and stalks him in all ways. Spielberg said he was very much influenced by Hitchcock and followed the ‘less is more’ approach. For example, we never see the truck’s driver—the monster is seemingly autonomous—an effect that only heighten stress an alienation. We see the driver’s boots in one scene, his arm waving Mann (unknown to him of course) into on coming traffic, and his face ever so faintly and quickly in a rear view mirror once perhaps an accident). The overall effect is an ever more anxious Weaver/Mann battling a nameless faceless non-human machine clearly out to kill him for no discernable reason.
Critics, and Spielberg himself, all talked about how this was an allegory of man’s battle with technology. Our own machines are trying to kill us and we are seemingly helpless to stop them. In this case Mann (get it?…..man!) is alone in the desert. David (get it? …. David!) is battling his own mechanical Goliath. But as we all know, David wins, and in this case, in the end, Mann triumphs over machine. The theme is pretty obvious and all clear and intended and stated outright.
But I saw Duel also as having a different level of meaning in this age of climate change. 1971 was just before the great gas crisis that altered the overall discussion about gas consumption. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was almost ten years old, and this was the year that the Keep America Beautiful organization first aired its now legendary “Crying Indian” ad featuring Iron Eyes Cody. The mid-sixties saw an awareness that “smog” and car exhaust were linked and an increase in urban temperature inversions led to tightening of emissions standards and a stated need to clean the air. 1963 Clean Air Act, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Act of 1965, and the 1967 Air Quality Act all worked towards that goal, and the 1970 creation of the Environmental Protection Agency all show the increasing awareness that something was very wrong. When Mann says “talk about pollution” he was not the only one who was. But at the time, most Americans would have understood pollution as smoke and trash—a mess and a health hazard. Few if any would have thought about climate in the broadest sense, let alone permanent and irreversible change to the planetary climate system. Indeed, it would still be six years before Exxon would learn about, and begin to cover up, the links between gasoline and the climate.
So, along comes Speilberg and makes a movie about Man/Mann at war for his life with a machine. But look again–gasoline is the peril–not just machines. First off, it is significant that the truck is itself a fuel truck (notice too, the parallel in the words “Duel” and “Fuel”). With its hidden driver, it is gasoline itself that is pursing Mann and trying to kill him. The fuel is also, as it is in nature, covered in dirt but delivered only by noisy machinery. The menacing word “flammable” on the truck’s back and side of course is a harbinger of danger, but it also is an illusion to heat—for us, a warming planet. At one point, truck/gasoline tries to push Mann into the passing train. In this scene, three forms of transportation are all in juxtaposition. Mann is on his Plymouth—the personal transport fit for a Pilgrim–what can be more American? Gasoline tries to kill Mann, but the more fuel-efficient train steadfastly rolls by oblivious to the drama at its side.
Finally, Mann’s battered Plymouth’s engine overheats and the oil is all gone. We watch as liquid and smoke pour of the slowing car and Weaver puts in that angst performance that Spielberg wanted him for. As Mann climbs a hill with the truck in hot pursuit, the Plymouth ceases to be a gasoline-powered vehicle (in two shots the fuel gauge says empty but in a subsequent one the red needle points to F). As soon as Mann crests the hill, his now gas-free unpowered car can coast in neutral and in dangerously high speed down the other side and only then the distance he needs. At the base of the hill, after a small wreck, and a hairpin turn, the Plymouth uses the last of its power to get up a road, and, with the help of Mann’s briefcase pressed on to the gas pedal, is slammed into by the truck (Mann having leapt out already). Gasoline and the car then careen over a handy cliff. Mann ultimately is only saved from death when he frees himself from the car and from gasoline, and when he frees himself from gasoline, the peril ends, and he is safe. True, he is also alone in the desert without a car, and the end of gasoline has dramatically changed Mann’s world, but the immediate peril is gone. The car and gasoline have driven him to a world of deadly heat and empty valleys, but at least he is alive.
I don’t think any of this analysis was intentional, but it is all there. The man vs, machine theme is unmistakable and the path is set for Jaws which is really a very similar film. But Duel also makes a great environmental parable too. Now I have to watch Jaws again.