Day 23- 31 Days of Halloween- Duel (1971)

Day 23- 31 Days of Halloween- Duel (1971)

This Steven Spielberg directed movie made for TV and adapted from Richard Matheson’s short story still packs a punch.

David Mann is a travelling businessman venturing to an appointment across California but is slowed down considerably by an ominous truck that at first inconveniences him until things suddenly take a much darker tone.

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This film could be seen to represent masculinity. David could be seen to represent the modern man- hen-pecked, pussy-whipped and a million miles from his caveman Id origins. Notice David meekly calling his wife to try and patch things up as he had earlier had an argument with her. They had been at a party when another man started coming onto her and acting inappropriately. He voices the opinion that she was sore because he didn’t choose to square up to the suitor and knock his lights out. He voices the opinion that she thinks he hadn’t fulfilled his traditionally masculine role.

Also, when David goes to the garage he asks the attendant to ‘Fill her up’ with the attendant replying ‘You’re the boss.’ To which David responds ‘Not in my house I’m not!’

David’s continued oneupmanship with the truck represents a display of masculine superiority. Whos the bigger man, who has the bigger penis?

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The clues to the driver of the truck point towards a more rugged, masculine opponent who is blue collar, possibly from Down South (he wears jeans and cowboy boots for his line of work as opposed to David’s white collar suit and polished shoes). 

The truck is the Return of the Repressed in the guise of David’s more base level, undomesticated masculinity. It’s always present, it’s unescapable and is waiting to confront him when he thinks he’s shaken it off.

Witness the scene in which David stops to use the payphone at the garage owned by the woman who keeps exhibits of rattlesnakes, tarantulas and lizards. Whilst the truck smashes the cages of these creatures and inadvertently sets them free whilst trying to run David over, it frees these creatures from their cages and places them where they would have been before- in the wild. This is also symbolic. The truck’s very deeds are also freeing David’s more primal masculine survival instincts which it thinks should be just as free but have become more deeply embedded and seemingly eradicated due to 70’s society with it’s emphasis on Women’s Liberation and, thus, the emasculation of men. The fact that the owner of the caged animals exhibit is female is also telling.

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But, whilst the truck might possess and exhibit brute force and traditional ‘Alpha Male’ qualities, it’s David’s qualities of cunning and intellect that save him. He utilises attributes that are above the level of the truck’s Id and he uses them advantageously.

Notice also the dinosaur roar the truck makes as it faces it’s demise. This could be seen as symbolic of this outdated, destructive and potentially dangerous version of untamed and unrefined masculinity. This dinosaur roar was also referenced in Spielberg’s later masterpiece, Jaws. He even made the roar louder when it was released in a new print on Blu ray a few years ago.

This really is a stunning piece of work. Acted to perfection, beautifully framed and paced amazingly. This may have been made for American TV but it proved so successful that it was expanded and released theatrically in the UK the year after.

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The UK cinema poster

A special mention to the gorgeous cinematography. The American landscape has never looked so beautiful along with the quintessentially American institutions such as it’s diners and random sideshow attractions such as the garage owner’s snakes and spiders sideshow. A gorgeous love -letter to Americana and a few examples of what makes this country so amazing.

Spielberg went on to make another horror themed TV movie, Something Evil the following year. This is also a resounding success but unfortunately never released on home media.

4/5 out of 5 stars

Day 3- 31 Days of Halloween- Something Evil (1972)

Day 3- 31 Days of Halloween- Something Evil (1972)

This early Spielberg directed TV movie features a TV advertising exec (Darren McGavin) move into a country farm with his hippy drippy New Age wife (Sandy Dennis). But strange things start to occur shortly afterwards.

I first saw this when it aired on UK television in the early 80’s. It scared the pants off me. Is it still scary to a cynical old man of 44?

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The simple answer is YES! It still packs a punch and the tone and direction are flawless.

Theres a creeping, building sense of malevolence that runs through the whole movie that is palpable and builds to a genuinely terrifying ending.

I love the fact that Spielberg gently sends up the fashionable pop-psychology and oh so self aware mysticism that was so hip in the 70’s.

There are plenty of scares to be had- the sound of a child crying at night, the demonic jam-jars (yes, really) that are discovered in the barn, the presence of something genuinely malevolent in the house that changes not only the young son but Mrs ‘Move To The Country’ herself as in one scene we see her beat her son for disobeying her orders.

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This is wayyy too unsettling for what should have been a pretty bland and pedestrian romp made for network television. Spielberg was obviously on a roll when he directed this as he had just made the masterpiece Duel.

I hope whatever limbo this title is in disappears so that we get a great Blu ray release sometime soon.

4 out of 5 stars

Duel – Day 25- 31 Days of Halloween

Duel – Day 25- 31 Days of Halloween

A man (called David Mann) is travelling to meet an appiontment but is stalked, driven insane (pun not intended) and almost killed by a driver in a huge battered old truck.

This movie is amazing. Firstly, it was directed by Steven Spielberg for TV which makes the fruits of his labour even more staggering. So much innovation, imagination and art was poured into this project whereas many directors of TV movies would have treated them as a low art form and a way of making an easy quick buck.

This is like Jaws on the road. Instead of a shark persuing the hapless prey theres a truck. The amount of ingenuity that Spielberg used to film in the sea years later he here uses when filming speeding vehicles on desert highways. The cinematography is flawless and could serve as a tourist film for California if the events depicted weren’t so frightening.

The way that I read the film was that the truck is a test to Mann’s manhood. Up until the encounter with the truck Mann hears on the radio a discussion regarding modern gender roles and how men in general are now emasculated and subserviant to women. One caller says that his trick when dealing with his wife is to ‘play meek’. There is also a phone call with Mann to his wife in which he apologises as the previous night they had been a party at which a man had been a bit too ‘hands on’ with her. Mann had done nothing and this had caused his wife to argue with him and question his masculinity. There is also a conversation with a garage owner. ‘You’re the boss!’ says the garage owner to whch Mann replies ‘Not in my house I’m not!’

The truck in this film is a test to this masculinity. The modern man (or Mann) who has had his baser instincts of being a hunter/gatherer eroded by the modern world is going to be pushed to the limit. Thus certain events happen during the film- the truck won’t let Mann pass when its travelling too slow. The one time he motions for Mann to pass it is to make him run into oncoming traffic in the other lane. There are also moments in the film where Mann thinks hes gotten rid of the truck only to find it hiding in wait further on in his journey. The truck driver wants to control, manipulate and wear Mann down. Will Mann play meek and accept this or fight back?

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Truck as test to Mann’s masculinity

There is an amazing sequence in which Mann retires to a roadside cafe as a respite to the onslaught from the truck. When he comes back out from the bathroom hes just used he sees to his horror that the murderous truck is parked in front of the cafe. The driver must be in the cafeteria as Mann and so his paranoia goes off the scale! This sequence is amazing- are the other patrons really looking around at Mann or is he just imagining it? Can he eliminate the patrons and single out the truck driver who is trying to kill him? This is one of the tense, nervous and nerve wrecking sequences I’ve ever seen in a film.

The film even feels like a live action horror version of a Roadrunner cartoon during one scene. When the truck starts pushing Mann’s car into a level crossing which is closed and with a train travelling through it the sheer surreality of the whole situation can be seen. This scene was added to the TV movie to make it into a full length film to be released in cinemas in Europe.

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UK quad cinema poster for Duel

The ending of the film involves Mann defeating his adversary but by sacrificing his own car. Mann jams his briefcase full of paperwork onto the cars accelerator so that it keeps on running. The truck crashes into the car but on doing so both run off the edge of a cliff. The dinosaur roar that is heard when the truck is falling and crashing into the rocks down below was later used by Spielberg in Jaws to accompany the death of the shark.

Spielberg seems to be implying that when man (Mann) strips away all of the trappings of modern life (symbolised by his car, his briefcase that is indicative of his job) then he possesses what man has always possessed- ingeuinity, intelligence and a strong survival instinct. No amount of watering down of these qualities by modern societal forces can erode this.

This film is amazing as are so many of Spielberg’s TV movies- and indeed his movies made for the cinema. This has been released on Blu ray thankfully. Now if only Steven would oversee the release of the brilliant Something Evil then I would be truly happy.