My lunchtime’s have been recently consumed by reading Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How the Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind. I’m speeding through it, giving me a really good insight into Hollywood’s silver age, catching up with the New Wave Europe that was racing ahead with new ideas. The old guard (moguls or the corporation’s that bought them out) were not prepared or even ready for the likes of Coppola, Beatty, Lucas, Scorsese, Friedkin, Bogdanovich and Spielberg did for American film. Be that good or bad, that’s up to the individual to decide. Because of the way the book’s written there are times that I feel some directors are not getting a look in until much later on. However there’s a reason, a rational to this, bringing in Scorsese in at the mid-point with Speilberg who we know weren’t doing much in Hollywood, but were there trying to make their personal films a reality.
The book has given me many recommendations (without even telling me) to go away and find these films. Starting with M.A.S.H (1970), there are more I want to get into, I just waiting for them to present themselves. Even a few cheeky revisits which are long over due. I wanted to focus on Steven Spielberg here for this review I wasn’t aware that his first feature film Duel (1971) (not shot on Super 8) was actually for TV. After years of struggling to get anything made and with the curse of Joan Crawford whom he directed in Night Gallery he was stuck in the lesser medium. Once his Movie of the week was aired “Spielberg became a darling of the French Critics”.. (pg 257 – Easy Riders and Raging Bulls). I remember reading an article where a critic suggested that she preferred his earlier work pre-Jaws to that which came after.
I guess she has something there, there is a massive change is tone from the first darker three films that are more adult as much as they are pure escapism you don’t have the schmaltz for which he has come to be known for. Not to say he’s not the worse director for it. He is a master of his medium, yet the title of auteur which is more easily given to Coppola and Scorsese et al. all have very strong styles. What Spielberg has is the ability to deliver big cinematic pieces that can stimulate emotional responses, he’s a master manipulator of emotion I should say. He knows is needed to produce emotion A, by doing B and C in turn to get your attention. It could be argued that he’s never really grown up, that’s what I’m finding from his contemporaries. Which really isn’t a bad thing in terms of his success. He has been able to deal with dark material from the Holocaust to the end of the Civil War, he’s no mouse, however he’s able to tap into the inner child of the audience because he never really let go to that feeling. Looking at his contemporaries work of the 1970’s that is dark, cynical and stylized. Most of them are great pieces of work, the modern classics we have today were made by these men.
Duel is sadly not one of them, for the reason that it’s been overlooked, not celebrated and not properly distributed in the country that produced it. Being shown theatrically in Europe and Japan to great praise, a horror film that relies on that single aspect of driving – Lorries. Admittedly I’m not a fan of those “Kings of the Road”, having to drive on the motorway a lot I have seen what can happen. Previously involved in a road accident that involved one (I’m all in one piece) it really changes your perspective and can change your outlook on how you drive. As much as we need them for the economy to grow I hate them. Spielberg plays on that fear we drivers can have of these vehicles that storm past us, clog up the road and can cause mayhem.
For the director it’s a rare if his only horror film, and not in the traditional sense. It takes place all in a single day, if only a few hours of David Mann’s (Dennis Weaver) life and it’s really enough. What begins just another big-headed road hogging lorry driver. (Sorry for my American readers/followers a Lorry is what we call trucks) is obstructing Mann as he drives to a meeting he is crossing the country for. Getting to the meeting soon fades away as trouble and survival become more important. A chance encounter with an unknown driver of a rusty tanker whose antagonistic and frankly dangerous driving leads to a game of cat and mouse on the open roads of America. This not the same as other road movies of the era, there’s no time for friendship, self exploration or tripping out. Out running the police or even getting the job done, this is survival.
What makes this stand apart from being the run of the mill TV movie of the week is the distinctive cinematography. The opening sequence of the camera being strapped to the bonnet (hood) of the car as it travels through various locations. Telling is we are on the road and have been for sometime. Is this the view of the car or the driver? more than likely the car that holds and carries the driver before we meet the lorry that is to bring hell with him. We have to see the world from the drivers point of view. Not as confined as Locke (2013) which is restricted to the car and the conversations that Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) has over the phone that alter the direction he take in life. This is not as complex as that, more easily compared to Jaws (1975) that plays on your basic fears, that fight or flight. Being able to move is the only option you have, to think on your feet, those quick life or death decisions. Returning to the cinematography briefly we are able to get into Mann’s head as he tries to work out who the driver once he has stopped after the first 3rd of the film. No one really knows who the driver is, given a few pieces of information.
Could I be so bald as the to make the jump and compare this to a stripped back Western, hell yes I will. We have the traveling gunfighter whose making his way to the next town. Met along the way by a group of Native Americans who want him to move on. Not knowing he is on their land, he’s an intruder and has to go. Or is that too simple, as they continually engage him in intimidation that leads ultimately to the gunfighters/white mans victory. Probably a simple translation but a starting point. We have a lorry that is relentless for reasons no one can understand, its crazy yet we watch on, driven by how we can all relate to dangerous drivers, even those who follow us and are completely safe for miles at a time, simply taking the same road as us.
Summing up in what has become a very long review of a much overlooked of Spielberg’s it’s not the landmark film that changed the landscape of the genre like he achieves with his blockbuster a few years later. Instead it’s a solid little horror film that taps into that shared fear we all have. Drivers or not we all at one time or another fear someone is following us, some with good cause for concern. There’s none of the magic that he channels by referencing classic cinema, taking what works and making it his own. Overall I am please to have seen this little film, running in at 85 minutes, just a little sad I missed his reflection in one of those split seconds of a director who is having fun on a limited budget and making it something bigger, grander, more exciting, ultimately cinematic for the small screen when he couldn’t get there at the time.