Sunday, 21 February 2016

Film Review: Duel (1971)

Fig. 1: Duel Poster.
There are a number of films that draw comparisons between vehicles and masculinity, but none do it quite as well as Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971). Though the plot is fairly simple, the underlying symbolism and frequent discussion of the fragility of masculinity - both literal and metaphorical - make Duel about much more than just a film about the conflict between a man driving to a meeting and a truck driver. "The premise could not be leaner: a timid businessman travelling along anonymous American highways is teased and taunted by a giant truck hellbent on killing him." (Thomas, 2000).

Fig. 2: David Mann.
The beginning of the film is shot entirely from the view of the front of the car. The audience sees the environment change from a busy city to the sweeping American countryside. Throughout this journey, the radio is playing. As the audience meets the main character, David Mann, a man on the radio is talking about how he doesn't feel like the head of his household, when he should, because he is the man of the house. Though there are very few women in the film, there is a clear implication that the men in the film feel threatened by women. First there's the aforementioned man on the radio, then David, who when told by a gas station attendant "You're the boss", responds with "not in my house, I'm not." In another scene near the end of the film, David asks an elderly couple in a car to call the police about the truck driver. Though the old man seems willing, his wife insists that they drive away as David is frightening her, the old man apologises and does as his wife says.

Fig. 3: David calls his wife.
There is a very interesting scene at the beginning of the film, in which David Mann calls his wife. During most of the scene, Mann is framed by the door of a washing machine (fig. 3), perhaps meant as a symbol of domesticity. During the phone call, Mrs. Mann discusses a party they had at the house the night before, in which a man both she and David knows was flirting with her in such a way that she describes him as practically raping her. Mann doesn't understand what she expected him to do, and seems to have been hoping his wife wouldn't still be upset by what happened. It's strange that David was so ready to challenge the truck driver - perhaps hoping for an easy fight - but did not step in to defend his wife from being almost sexually assaulted. This raises questions to the kind of man David is; though he is clearly the character the audience sympathises with the most, he does not come across as being an all round good or innocent person.

Fig. 4: Comparison of the two vehicles.
A major difference between David and the truck driver is their choice of vehicle and what they represent. David Mann drives a red Plymouth Valiant, one of the best selling cars in the 60s and 70s, considered to be a good all-round domestic vehicle. He is obviously proud of his car, showing a lot of concern for it during his encounter with the school bus. The truck on the other hand, is huge, rusty and billows smoke. It has a powerful presence and personality of its own, making it the main character and its driver irrelevant. Mann's car is not the truck's target, Mann himself is, while the car is nothing more than a means of transport. The truck has made itself a weapon; "Offering only brief glimpses of the truck driver, Spielberg infuses the vehicle with devious strategies allowing the menace to evolve gradually." (Thomas, 2000). It becomes increasingly more aggressive, and when Mann stops at various places, it waits further ahead, as though saying "I'm not done playing yet". It becomes a dangerous game of cat and mouse; the cat has the mouse under its paw and could kill it in an instant, but would rather release the mouse so it can receive more enjoyment from chasing it. "Not only is the vehicle never ascribed a simplistic motivation (like the shark or velociraptor of future Spielberg hits, it simply exists to kill) but the driver is never ever revealed. Tension and terror, not characterisation and plot, are what matter here." (Freer, 2000).

Fig. 5: Mann in the diner.
Comparisons between masculinity and vehicles are common, it is something seen in other films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, in which the war boys practically worship their vehicles and even scar themselves to resemble the inner workings of a car. The film explores the idea of toxic masculinity in the same way Duel does, as the conflict between David Mann and the truck driver not only hurts them, but several people around them. Whenever Mann tries to escape the truck driver, he seems to end up somewhere where there are associations with an old fashioned view of femininity, each place becoming increasingly hostile. First we have him calling his wife from a launderette at a gas station, then the diner, where Mann sits alone in a section coloured with pinks and pastels (fig. 5) while the other men sit at the bar. Mann later encounters a bus full of school children and is asked to help get the bus moving again. Raising and looking after children is something even people today still believe is the job of a woman, and as Mann tries to move the bus, he is mocked and laughed at by the children, who find his attempts at moving the bus hilarious. After trying and failing, Man quickly leaves when he sees the truck approaching. The truck - the larger, stronger, more "masculine" vehicle - then proceeds to move the school bus easily. Mann later makes another stop at a gas station and attempts to call the police. The gas station is owned by a woman, who keeps snakes and spiders in cages near where the phone is. The truck driver proceeds to destroy these cages while trying to get to Mann, and the woman is far more concerned about her snakes and spiders than she is Mann. 

Fig. 6: A happy ending?
When Mann finally destroys the truck and it's driver, by causing him to drive off a cliff, it does not feel like Mann truly wanted to kill him, but more like he was trying to prove a point, to take his place as the bigger man. Mann goes from cheering to being eerily silent when he realises what he's done; is he sad he has caused the death of another person, or, in some twisted sense, sad that the game has come to an end? He left his house that morning to attend a meeting, and instead became so caught up in the conflict between him and the truck that he has most likely forgotten why he even left home. The ordeal was no doubt terrifying, but now another person's blood is on his hands, from a fight very few people would believe truly happened. Even people Mann encountered on the road were not convinced that the truck was trying to kill him, passing Mann off as crazy without much thought.

An intense ride from start to finish, combined with beautiful scenery and a vehicle that steals the show instead of the main character, Duel is arguably one of Spielberg's best films, and one he even manages to make a small, unintentional cameo in, when he is seen in the reflection of a phone booth. It is one of a great many films that show a detailed plot and plenty of character development are not entirely necessary; "Duel might almost have been a silent film, because it expresses so much through action and so little through the words that are here." (Maslin, 1983). The setting, action and characters are already developed, the audience is simply witnessing the most thrilling part of their story.

Figure 1. Duel Poster. (1971) [poster] At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Figure 2. David Mann. (1971) From: Duel. Directed by: Steven Spielberg [Film still] United States: Universal Studios. At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Figure 3. David calls his wife. (1971) From: Duel. Directed by: Steven Spielberg [Film still] United States: Universal Studios. At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Figure 4. Comparison of the two vehicles. (1971) From: Duel. Directed by: Steven Spielberg [Film still] United States: Universal Studios. At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Figure 5. Mann in the diner. (1971) From: Duel. Directed by: Steven Spielberg [Film still] United States: Universal Studios. At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Figure 6. A happy ending? (1971) From: Duel. Directed by: Steven Spielberg [Film still] United States: Universal Studios. At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Freer, I (2000) 'EMPIRE ESSAY: Duel Review' In: Empire Online 01. 01. 2000 [online] At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Thomas, W (2000) 'Duel Review' In: Empire Online 01. 01. 2000 [online] At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

Maslin, J (1983) ''SPIELBERG'S 'DUEL,' FOUR-WHEEL COMBAT' In: The New York Times 15. 04. 1983 [online] At: (Accessed on: 06.02.2016)

1 comment:

  1. Once again, a thorough and insightful review... great stuff :)