Holy Compact Car Batman!...What I Caught Watching Duel At The Plaza Last Night

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When it comes to my film education, the vast majority of it has come from VHS tapes. Later DVDs. So it’s exhilarating to see in a theater classic films that I have only watched at home, on a relatively small screen. Not just because I can view movies as they would have (for the most part) been exhibited during their initial release, but because in a theatrical setting, so much of what a director and her production team put into a film can become that much more noticeable and apparent. 

Last night I stayed for our first screening of Duel and there’s quite a few things that popped* out at me that I hadn't noticed when I first saw this movie years ago. The more I thought about the film, the more connections I made. With those ideas swirling in my head, I had to get them out. Hence this post is born.

Read this before, or after, our September 8 screening this Sunday to see if you agree with my conclusions. Beware, there will be spoilers (and beware I hastily wrote this at 2 am while the thoughts were still fresh, so there’s been little--read no--editing).

1. Western Motifs and References
- Throughout the film there’s a number of allusions to Westerns. The movie is called Duel, so the references will obviously exist. It’s fun to still to catch them though. Among the references are: 

  • As the opening credits play out, we watch Mann’s journey from the surburbs to the open road from the point of the view of his car (the camera is mounted on the front). The result is framing that feels tight and confining. The suburbs and the city dominate everything we see, making the unseen car feel small, and the drive suffocating. When Mann’s car finally hits the open road, the point of view shifts. We see Mann’s car for the first time in a series of long shots. As Mann has finally escaped the city, the framing now has a sense of freedom, a theme long linked to the American Frontier, 
  • As Mann and the truck continue their journey, the terrain goes from flat to hilly to mountainous. While not exactly John Ford level, the vistas become increasingly reminiscent of that director's work. 
  • Mann’s only clear view of the truck driver are of his cowboy boots. 
  • Chuck’s Diner features a fair number of truck drivers dressed like cowboys, all casually drinking beers. Add in the pool table and the bar brawl Mann gets into, the diner is almost like a modern day saloon.  
  • Multiple tumbleweeds appear on the road during the final confrontation (which for some Spielberg haters would be proof of Spielberg’s penchant to get cutesy).
  • During the climactic battle between Mann and the truck, the road completely shifts from paved (civilization) to dirt (the wild west).
  • The final confrontation takes place in a fenced off area that resembles a corral in a classic Western. Mann's car and the truck will face off her for the first and only time in the film.
  • In true Western style, Mann’s car suffers major damage to its right side near the end. It’s reminiscent of the injury suffered by the eponymous hero of the 1953 film Shane. Shane is similarly hurt on one side during a climactic showdown.

2. Car Graveyard - This is part of the Western motifs, however it deserves it’s own number. 

Mann at a point in the film speeds ahead of the truck and pulls off the road to hide behind a hill and let the truck pass him by. Sitting next to that hill are a set of train tracks and a junkyard filled with old cars. Also tethered next to the junked vehicles are some horses.

After Mann falls asleep, a montage of the cars, junkers from the 1940s and 1950s, unfolds on screen. It’s a contemplative sequence, as the editing pauses briefly on each car to give us time to note how beautiful the cars are, and how much they’ve fallen apart. Broken tail lights and glass. Rusting frames. Tires long since removed. The only sound we hear as we shift from image to image, is that of the horses neighing. 

It’s an explicit reference to a theme common to the Western, that time moves on, leaving the old behind, making way for the modern. It’s a theme that’s also a part of the aforementioned Shane. Throughout the film, Shane tries to leave his past as a renowned gunfighter behind him. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. However, he finds that difficult and then ultimately impossible, as he gets into one last gunfight to protect the family he’s gotten to know and care for. As Shane explains to another character, Shane is a relic of a West that will soon no longer exist as he and other gunslingers die off. In the case of Duel, there’s a slight subversion of this.

Mann is a modern "man", while Shane's desire was to be one. In the case of both, their greatest desire is to avoid conflict. Unlike Shane however, Mann was never a well known fighter and he comes off as a bit of a coward. Men want to fight Shane because of his reputation and perceived strength. The truck driver attacks and taunts Mann because the driver senses Mann's inherent weakness.

3. It’s in the Eyes - At Chuck’s Diner, Mann is wrestling with what to do. The mysterious truck driver may have followed Mann in. At this moment, Spielberg’s camera lowers. The table Mann is sitting at now obscures our view of the lower half of his face. This focuses our attention on Mann’s eyes as he imagines how he can peacefully confront the driver of the truck--even though Mann still doesn’t know which of the men sitting at the counter is the driver. Indecisive, Mann decides to do nothing. 

A few seconds later, he notices a lone driver sitting at a booth, and he figures he’s the guy Mann’s looking for. This can be read as a sign of Mann’s cowardice, as he settles on taking on the one driver in the place sitting alone and has his back to the rest of the diners. On some subconscious level, Mann believes he’s got the advantage because it will be just him and the driver. Mann thinks he can intimidate the guy. Unfortunately for Mann, it leads to a one-sided brawl that he’s on the losing side of.

Later in the film, Spielberg’s camera again lowers. This time, the front of Mann’s car partially blocks our view of his face, focusing our attention again on his eyes. However, this time, instead of running through the options in his head, Mann is more decisive. He first stomps on the gas and tries to pass the truck. Failing that, Mann gets out of his car and without the protection of his vehicle, charges at the truck. Mann is now acting, instead of just thinking about acting. He's also acting aggressively, instead of meek and passive as he did in the first of half of the film.

4. Left to Right, Right to Left - At the start of the film, once we finally see Mann’s car on screen, Mann and his car are traveling left to right. When he first encounters the truck, Spielberg’s camera tracks from Mann’s car, along the side the truck. gliding in front of the truck, until the front of the truck fills the frame, blocking our view of Mann’s car. 

This not only gives us a sense of how much larger the truck is in comparison to Mann’s car, it shifts the movement inside the frame from left to right, to right to left. It signals that the power has shifted from Mann to the truck. At this point in the story, Mann doesn’t know that he’s at the mercy of the truck. For the rest of film, as the truck retains the power and pushes the story forward, right to left movement will dominate almost every shot the car and the truck are featured in.

5. Ethel, a Radiator Hose and a Phone Call - These three appear the first time Mann and the truck stop at a gas station. Their battle hasn't really started yet. The second time they appear, ethel is mostly a callback, while the radiator hose and the phone call both have thematic weight and are significant to the plot. 

As for the hose, it’s Mann that asks the gas station attendant to check it at the second station. It's a flip from the first attendant who told Mann about the hoses, but Mann blew off, thinking he knew better. Recognizing his limitations, Mann is finally deferring to someone else who knows more than him. Unfortunately for Mann, he will learn that's too little too late.

What about the phone call? Well, during the first phone call Mann downplays what happened at the party between his wife and their lewd neighbor, mewly defending his decision to avoid a confrontation. During the second call, Mann again attempts to avoid a confrontation, this time by calling the police. The truck destroys the phone booth before Mann can finish his call. Mann can’t back out of a fight this time.

Also reversed is the truck's behavior at the second stop. It's much more aggressive, not only attacking Mann, but also destroying the station's mini-zoo and only phone booth. 

6. Trains and Trucks, Oh My - Trains appear repeatedly throughout the film. The railroad has always been thematically linked with the West and the American frontier, so the inclusion of the trains matches the Western motifs sprinkled throughout the story. 

The trains also play a role in emasculating Mann. Much like the truck, they’re much larger than Mann’s car. So they physically dwarf him, making his car seem even smaller than it is. 

The emasculation is pushed further at a railroad stop when the truck attempts to push Mann into the path of a train. As Mann furiously presses the brakes, the entire image of Mann’s car and the train rushing across the frame resembles an object being pushed into a buzzsaw.

Later in the film, the truck exchanges horn blows with a train it and Mann's car pass. If one didn’t know better, they’d guess it’s a conspiratorial exchange. There’s a strong possibility of that, as earlier, Mann, and we as the audience, mistake the sound of a train as the truck coming up from behind. It’s almost as if the trains are privy to the truck’s plan and that one train, sneaking up Mann, was joining in the fun. 

Even if the truck and train aren't in cahoots, the horn blows are a reminder that the truck and the trains have much more in common, especially when it comes to their size and their function, than Mann’s car has with the truck. Mann’s car isn’t in either of their weight class. Hauling freight cross country, the truck and the train are metaphorically blue collar. They do a manly job, in the case of the truck with its flammable cargo, a dangerous job. Mann on the other hand, is just a salesman, with tinted sunglasses, a monogrammed briefcase, and an arguable lack of self worth. Mann isn't one of them, he's an outsider.

The matinee screening of Duel is Sunday, September 8 at 1pm at The Plaza. 

 Charles Judson is Artistic Director for the Atlanta Film Festival