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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oh, Steven! Less is so much more, 22 Jun. 2007
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This review is from: Duel (Special Edition) [DVD] (DVD)
So here's an irony: Thirty-five years on, the movie audience which Spielberg's later work helped to capture - multiplex consumers of overblown CGI, gross-out, slapstick, and ever-greater explosions - may not "get" this one at all (e.g. see some of its other reviewers here). For anybody else - and this is most certainly not "art-house" either, don't be put off - here's an astounding, must-see thriller. OK, so it's a wannabe western, or Hitchcock (or Beowulf, or Alien, or High Noon) on wheels: None of that detracts from its great premise, which is delivered utterly without frills.

So many reasons to see this:

Spielberg is SO good at doing minimal (seriously, Steve, about time to get back to some of that?): Pared-down music, only natural-sound detail; no human baddie, just a perfectly cast truck as the anthropomorphised "killer". Even the shattering finale is captured on ordinary live film, albeit in one of the most awe-inspiring shots ever committed to celluloid.

Great raw material: OK, so of course the script dates just a bit, with what dialogue there is sounding TV-ish and a wee bit cheesy to the modern ear; and kids now seeing this film might snigger at the personal styling details and plot's obvious reliance on predating mobile phones; but hey... We're right there for Mann (Dennis Weaver) from the very start, as it's vital that we have to be, since his story is so discreetly and elegantly constructed.

And as a piece of performance: Not just by Weaver, in whom we completely believe as the put-upon everyman reluctantly forced to find his inner warrior. The film works because it sustains a gut-wrenching kinetic energy that few others ever reach (woeful comparison with, for example, the new Pirates III, which for all its frantic rushing about, quite fails to draw its audience into the action). DUEL trumps later blockbusters because the whole movie is shot "for real" - perhaps partly because the frantic pace of its actual production (see below) seems to rub off onto the screen. That it works at all is largely because it's propelled by uncannily perfect pacing of the on-the-road scenes, which (as Spielberg acknowledges) only happens when you get a perfect mix of the ingredients: obsessive planning of sequences; unobtrusively brilliant stunt driving; then-new moving camera techniques (including a contribution from Bullitt's road unit); and laser-sharp editing. That's not to overlook the out-of-car scenes, which have a gloriously welcome fingernails-down-the-blackboard inner screech of Hitchcockian suspense - best of all in the diner scene ("which one is him?"), complete with some hilariously dark 'red herring' moments; the snake farm; and the old couple who (with pitch-perfect Buchan / Hitchock irony) mistake Mann for an attacker.

Visuals: It's clear from the first frame that, as Fats Waller put it, "the gods are in the house". Details are pin-sharp, not just as to focal clarity, but as they layer up the metaphorical landscape of the story, with every single shot both perfectly framed and constantly informing character and/or building pace; and that's a lot of shots, often complex and kinetic ones. And all set in a serenely beautiful landscape, mocking the petty anxieties and feuds of the men and machines scuttling across it. All the more surprising therefore to find in the bonus material that DUEL was made in less than a month: just 13 days' shooting, including the 3 days of (ultimately unused) "spare plate" shots insisted on by the studio.

This DVD edition is deeply satisfying both for the transfer quality of the movie itself and for a joyous Spielberg interview. Refreshingly modest and candid, the director reveals his debt to a quick-witted PA, to his production team and actors, and how great achievement springs from being young and hungry. It's amusing by-the-by to see Spielberg look back on this period of coming to terms with the public impact of his own virtuosity, coming to realise how a seemingly minor movie shot in 13 days can outgrow its origins to signal his big breakthrough. (Among all the fascinating stuff about how to get a 50-mph lorry to go at 100 mph, he also, touchingly, points out a couple of minor rookie mistakes you might not otherwise have noticed.) Musing on the cultural impact that his astonishing debut piece had, stumbling upon a global audience, he notes that what started as simply a domestic "TV ratings Titanic" became, internationally, a bigger but quite different phenomenon: "Here I was making a roadkill tribute to High Noon and Hitchcock, then the Europeans were reading in all this esoteric abstract symbolism about class warfare in America". It also, so he says, earned him the instant and lasting respect of Fellini (cue archive photo to prove this!).

Hey look, this film is basically an hour of a geeky guy in a little red car being chased up and down the mountain by one helluva scary truck. You can find much more if you want to look for it - Dostoevsky stuff about man and machines, or the 20th century post-feminist crisis of male identity, or the jurisprudential question of whether we need to be able to attribute a motive to evildoing, etc - but, for me, what nails the simple greatness of this piece is that WE ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS in the end. On that level alone, it won't disappoint.
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Initial post: 13 Jan 2010 18:39:00 GMT
Taidgh Lynch says:
Thanks for this great review R. Miles!
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R. Miles
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Location: London, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 8,224,630