I have the impression that many of us who are (or wannabe) avid film-goers have, not only grown up, but also cinematically matured with Spielberg’s films. This man possesses a well-earned special place in our hearts, as he is capable of making cinema rich in both content and visuals. For that matter, I find it hard to believe that there is someone out there who would call himself a true cineaste (be it a professional critic or an amateur of this art) and has not relished in some of Spielberg’s finest moments. But beware, I use the word “relished” on purpose, conscious of it being a difficult verb that connotes a lot more, in contrast to say “watched” or even “comprehended”. And relishing, ladies and gentlemen is one of the distinctive traits of this particular director.
The introductory remarks above may sound insipid (to the same people who think that some of Spielberg’s films may be insipid), yet in them lies a trapped truth, inextricably linked with the film in question. Duel is a film of rare pleasures, not so much for its elegant shooting (true as that may be), but for being able to talk about the modern man with timeless ease, and in its way mock the innate and immutable survival instincts within each one of us. As a matter of fact, Spielberg seeks to expose the viewer himself, and the way his life has been absorbed by the big bad city. But for this to be achieved, he’s going to need a... bigger road. He must first of all get him out of the urban centre and place him in the forgotten dusty roads of the American wasteland. There he will undergo a violent cultural stripping.
The film features a one and only central character, on the road for a business trip. He travels alone in an almost deserted highway, and during that trip, and without either wanting it or having sought it, he finds himself in a race of survival (“everybody runs”), face to face with a mammoth dirty truck. A giant road shark, who seems to be the ultimate-born baddy, terrifies and attacks his victim without obvious motivation. All right... the last bit was a bit too easy, so I take it back without wanting to push further the obvious reference to that other glorious movie.
Amidst the loneliness of the road and in the middle of voice-over thoughts, Duel’s typical protagonist looses his singularity. He is a common city businessman, with the name Man(n), thus becoming the ultimate symbol of the urban man. Raised with Bugs Bunny, McDonalds and Pinocchio, with the regular business apparel, the regulation moustache, and the quotidian family life (in a passing shot we can see his two children in front of the TV set playing with their toy-robots, whereas it might have been more apt to have them play with their toy-dinosaurs), this every-day man escapes his everydayness and comes in close encounter with an alien threat. An ordinary man under extraordinary circumstances, just how it would be six years later with some other typical guy from another average county town.
Across him lies an unknown “evil”. A dirty, rough but ready fuel truck, ready to shoot flames (as the sign “Flammable” on its back aptly reminds), horrifies the astounded American for reasons beyond his comprehension. It breathes carbon monoxide and dust at the same time as the terrified Mann reeks of insecurity and anxiety. The truck’s driver remains invisible, with only his left arm on show, and we can only speculate on his human form and mind (for all we know, he can be a badass extraterrestrial who hates bikes and goes for jumbo power-vehicles).
The dirty Peterbitt, an indeterminate threat with a faceless driver, duels with Mann’s relatively petit Dodge Valiant in a road race for survival, where a single man will prevail. But Mann’s face is familiar, having introduced himself to the audience through a shot in his rear-view mirror, in the beginning of the film. It is as if Spielberg is trying to show that this average Mann is the reflection of the viewer himself, of any modern average man (and that this duel is his exposure to a danger out of the boundaries he has build for his self-protection).
And as Mann loses his sense of direction, his senses have already been lost on the road. In a characteristic scene Mann stops at a small-town cafe and he is pictured lost in his exhausted ramblings, unable to think straight. Everyone around him seems a potential perpetrator, but in the end the abnormal and suspicious behaviour is his. It is obvious by that stage that he has reached beyond the bounds of the world familiar to him, unable to seek help, and therefore determined to withstand.
Total recall of the basic instincts for the protagonist, who redefines himself and gets acquainted with another Mann; he who can fight, push his limits and kill if he must. In a beautifully shot and marvellously suspenseful finale, Spielberg will bring the duel to a close, taking his symbolic protagonist literary to the edge and at the same time relishing in the revelation of his true identity. It seems that nothing is more entertaining than the collapse of the elaborate camouflage that man has built for concealing his primal and animal-like nature. The race is over with the winner looking out into the void and realising that he is an inextricable part of this unfamiliar and paranoid world. But everything is over, and everything has changed for everything to stay the same. Like a spectacular sunset, lost in the magnificent view of an infinite horizon. Return to the jungle.
Translation by (the mighty) Sylvia Karastathi