Sunday, 6 December 2009

Duel, Steven Spielberg, USA 1971

Although over the years a number of interpretations have been read into the chase by the truck out to kill the Dennis Weaver character (e.g. the truck being just a product of Weaver's imagination; suburban angst; the struggle between working class and middle class, etc.), taken at face value Duel quite simply is an outstanding psychological thriller in which Spielberg more than proves that he knows how to pull all the genre's available registers and, moreover, knows how to use them in a very subtle and clever way. What strikes me each time I see the film, is the simplicity, or banality, of it: after all, it's just a truck that for the full duration of the film chases a car. That's it. But Spielberg seems to have known back then what he's since forgotten: that a major part of the creation of suspense is revealing as little as possible, for there's nothing that frightens us more than the unknown. Although the idea of never showing the truck driver's face, nor revealing his identity, was already in Richard Matheson's novel on which Duel is based, Spielberg did well to leave that in, for otherwise Duel would have been a different film, and I doubt it would have been near as good.

But in Duel Spielberg also masters the tricky art of not just creating suspense, but slowly building it up - and again in a very subtle, often unexpected, way - nothing is too much or overdone. Surprisingly enough, the plot for all its simplicity rings plausible at every moment with no narrative holes or scenes of ridiculous and gratuitous violence to spoil it. But unlike most of today's disaster films who more often than not crush under the weight of their overblown budgets, Duel was shot with a modest budget, and this served the film well as all expensive - and actually unnecessary - technological gimmicks had to be skipped in favour of suggestion, subtlety and psychological storytelling. Besides its excellent screenplay and direction, what also adds to Duel's greatness is its use of music, which, like the whole film, is more than a casual nod to Hitchcock. There are moments in the score which are clearly reminiscent of Bernhard Herrmann's score for Psycho. But then, the truck itself is not that dissimilar to the birds - equally harmless yet menacing in appearance, and it always strikes when you least expect it.