Duel (1971)

2016 #140
Steven Spielberg | 86 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 12* / PG

DuelAs far as Americans are concerned, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film was The Sugarland Express (which I reviewed just last year). For the rest of us, it was Duel. Originally produced as a TV movie for ABC, it was a ratings and critical success, which led Universal to have Spielberg shoot extra footage so they could release it theatrically in the rest of the world. It merits it, too, because Duel is a brilliant work.

Adapted by renowned Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson from his own short story, the film sees ordinary family guy David Mann (Dennis Weaver) driving across the back of beyond to a business meeting, when he comes up behind a massive slow-moving truck. Perfectly reasonably, he overtakes and continues on his way… but a few seconds later, the truck thunders past him. “Whatever,” thinks Mann (in modern parlance)… until the truck slows down again. When he tries to overtake, the truck speeds up, or blocks his way. So begins a game of cat and mouse between the two vehicles, which mild-mannered Mann finds impossible to escape, as it becomes clear the mysterious truck driver is definitely trying to kill him.

It’s an incredibly simple, straightforward premise; so simple that initially one struggles to see how Matheson and Spielberg intend to ring half-an-hour out of it, never mind a whole feature. That is to underestimate them, however; and to underestimate the truck driver, who has many ways of messing with Mann’s head — all without revealing himself (the one time he disembarks from his cab, we only see his boots as he paces on the far side of his vehicle). Never revealing the trucker’s face was Matheson’s idea, but Spielberg leapt on it wholeheartedly, because the scariest monsters are the ones you never see. Couple that with a specially-chosen truck (of the seven Spielberg ‘auditioned’, it was the one whose front most resembled a face) and you have a genuinely threatening presence.

Although Duel has been analysed as a horror movie, or a Western, or a commentary on class war in America, Spielberg didn’t see it that way, regarding it as a pure Hitchcockian suspense thriller. He’s bang on the money. It’s not scary in the way a horror movie would be, and I think calling it a Western is a bit of a reach, though I can kind of see where the class war thing is coming from; but you can absolutely see the ingredients for a Hitchcock movie here. Mann is an everyman (I’m sure his name can be no coincidence), a completely nondescript ordinary Joe, who gets caught up in extraordinary events against his will, and winds up the only person in a position to do anything about them. The truck is akin to the eponymous avians of The Birds, an everyday thing that seems to be acquiring almost supernatural powers; that you can never predict its next action, or where it will next appear, other than to know it will always be there, waiting for you. It’s a situation any driver — or, indeed, any passenger — can conceive of finding themselves in, which adds a “what would I do?” frisson to proceedings.

Weaver is excellent, plausibly charting a course from bland normality to apologetic paranoia, on to hopeless despair, ending in desperate lunacy. At one point he pauses at a roadside cafe to get a breather, but has reason to suspect one of his fellow patrons is his tormenter. As he tries to subtly surveil them, attempting to figure out what he can do to defuse the situation, Mann’s thoughts are narrated on the soundtrack; but we barely need it, because Weaver physically conveys all of his uncertainty, his fear, his wannabe-bravado. Sequences like this also demonstrate how Spielberg was already a master of camerawork and editing, guiding us as to where Mann is looking, shifting angles high and low, the constant changes in perspective not disorientating our sense of space but nonetheless keeping it off kilter.

This applies tenfold to the road sequences. Spielberg was originally urged to shoot the film on a soundstage using rear projection, the only way to shoot a feature-length piece of this complexity in the time they had available; but he knew that wouldn’t be effective, so despite the insanely tight schedule he took the production out on the road and shot it all for real. Although he did run over in the end, the original TV movie was still shot in less than a fortnight, and edited in ten days to boot. (The additional photography for the movie version amounted to just two more days.) You wouldn’t know it. The array of complex setups on display is extraordinary if you’re looking out for that kind of thing; even if you’re not, there’s some fairly detailed road choreography in play at times, including dynamic moving material that can only have been achieved with a separate camera car. It’s no wonder this work brought Spielberg a lot of attention, and finally facilitated his long-desired move from TV into movies.

Speaking of which, why has no one ever done a “TV work of Steven Spielberg” box set? There’s a short featurette on the Duel DVD (and Blu-ray) about the other TV productions he directed, and while I’m sure it can’t be his greatest work, he’s clearly not totally ashamed of it, and the clips shown suggest it’d be worth a watch. For one thing, being able to see the original TV edit of Duel would be interesting, for two reasons. First, it would solve the aspect ratio dilemma. The DVD is presented in 4:3, as it was originally shot for TV, even though it’s the movie cut. The more recent Blu-ray follows the cinematic framing of 1.85:1; however, it’s not just cropped and it’s not just widened: when they reviewed the footage to create the movie version, Spielberg discovered he could see himself sat in the back seat giving direction — so the final print is both widened slightly and cropped slightly. I guess which is ‘right’ is now a matter of personal preference, though the Blu-ray undoubtedly looks tonnes better in every other respect.

Secondly, it would be interesting to see Duel without the material that was added to pad the length. Specifically, that includes: the opening credits, where Mann backs out of the garage and drives through the city; when he phones his wife from the gas station; the scene at the railroad crossing; and the school bus. With the exception of the railway crossing, which is in-keeping with the focus of most of the rest of the movie, these are exactly the kind of scenes that feel added. That’s not to say they’re badly done, and if you didn’t know there’d been footage added they possibly wouldn’t stick out at all; but it would be interesting to see a version that less dilutes the otherwise near-unwavering concentration on Mann vs. Truck.

Nitpicks and “what if”s aside, Duel is a fantastic calling card from a director who has gone on to become arguably the most significant and influential filmmaker of the ensuing 45 years. To say it stands in contention to still be regarded among his finest films does no disservice to the body of work he’s produced since, but rather indicates just how assuredly he hit the ground running.

4 out of 5

Duel is on The Horror Channel today at 6:40pm and tomorrow at 8am.

* Duel’s initial rating under the modern system was PG in 1987, which stood until 2015 when it was resubmitted (presumably for the Blu-ray) and inexplicably given a 12 — “inexplicably” because even the BBFCinsight information doesn’t make the reasoning clear. It appears to be because of “threat”, which is a ridiculously vague non-justification. ^

What Dreams May Come (1998)

2015 #129
Vincent Ward | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / PG-13

When What Dreams May Come first came out, the reviews seemed to conclude that it was rubbish, but at least visually splendid. Back in 1998, that put me off — “it’s not meant to be very good” was the takeaway thought there. As the years have gone on, for some reason those reviews (or possibly just one I extrapolated into a consensus, who knows?) stuck with me; and as my temperament as a film fan grew, that it was visually extraordinary (even if nothing else) began to seem reason enough to watch it. It lingered in the back of my mind, never quite becoming a “must see”, especially as the opportunity rarely (if ever) presented itself. So that’s more or less how I come to it now, 17 years since its release and those reviews — a long-awaited scratch of a long-lingering itch. (Perhaps this gives some insight into why/how it takes me so long to get round to watching recommendations/things I’m quite keen to see/etc.)

Adapted from a novel by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, the story concerns Dr Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra). Their perfectly lovely life is shattered when their two kids are killed in a car crash. Despite Annie suffering a mental breakdown, they hang in there… until Chris is killed in another car crash a few years later. He ascends to a kind of Heaven, a wondrous place controlled by his imagination — this is where those visuals come in. However, Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, and so been condemned to Hell. He vows to do what has never been done, and travel to Hell to rescue her.

Hell, incidentally, also looks incredible, as do the various locales visited by Chris and his companions (played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow) on their way there. Director Vincent Ward and his team have created a rich, engrossing visual space here. It’s not just the Oscar-winning visual effects either, which create Chris’ initial realisation of Heaven as a kind of living painting, but also the locations, their decorations, and some fantastic sets. The design work is brilliant, and the vast majority of it still holds up today. Even the CGI doesn’t look glaringly like 17-year-old graphics, and in many cases what I presume is a mix of live action, models and some CGI is far more effective than the all-CG look it would likely have if made today.

However, the story is… problematic. Its logic comes and goes (the afterlife’s rules have to be obeyed or are able to be broken depending on the situation, for instance), it goes on too long, with too many asides, and there are needless twists, reveals, and reversals that are neither surprising (thanks to their ultimate predictability) nor illuminating (thanks to their unnecessariness). There were too many flashbacks and asides to real life, and I’d have liked it more if it stuck to the afterlife stuff — cut the flashbacks, limit the story to the afterlife quest, and stop mirroring it in the couple’s earlier real-life troubles. That would make the movie shorter, more streamlined, less wishy-washily sentimental, more focused, and therefore better.

Nonetheless, some will identify with the sentimental “love transcends death”-type message more than others, and there’s a chance those who like (or don’t mind) their films to be at the soppier end of the spectrum will genuinely love it. For the rest of us — for anyone who likes visual splendour in their movies, anyway — it does indeed merit a look for the imagery alone.

3 out of 5

I Am Legend (2007)

2008 #35
Francis Lawrence | 96 mins | DVD | 15 / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

I Am LegendWill Smith stars in this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic sci-fi novel from the director of Constantine. The latter is a film I personally enjoyed (and which features a relatively early appearance of the currently prolific Shia LaBeouf) but received some mixed reactions on the whole. By a broadly similar token, I Am Legend has received a fair share of negative reviews, though my opinion is a little more divided.

Things go very well for the first half. It’s nicely paced, concentrating on a depiction of one man’s loneliness taken to the extreme. The script, and Smith’s acting, handle the material well. The deserted and destroyed New York looks as stunning as the trailers promised, while the CGI animals that roam it are as good as any. The flashbacks that punctuate the film are well executed too, drip-feeding clues to what happened while maintaining some mysteries of their own. There are some other good sequences: Neville’s exploration of a pitch-black Dark Seeker-infested building is tense, and the death of his pet dog — his one remaining companion — is moving, even if it was given away in the trailer. That scene is effectively played and shot, showing only Neville’s face as he is forced to euthanize the diseased animal by suffocation.

Sadly, this is where things begin to go down hill. The Dark Seekers — the film’s vampires/zombies/whatever — are crafted with pretty good CGI, but they’re still not life-like enough to work. If it were a mindless blockbuster they would’ve been more at home, but as it’s managed to be an effective drama they feel entirely out of place. It’s true that real actors couldn’t have managed the physical feats the creatures are made to pull off, but do they really need to do those things? I suspect not. The film also leaves several holes in the Dark Seeker’s actions — for example, they copy Neville’s trap, a move apparently beyond their intelligence, but the film neglects to explore why or how they did this.

Instead it moves on to the arrival of some more survivors. Quite where they came from, or how they got into the supposedly isolated Manhattan, is another inadequately explained set of circumstances. After they arrive, the film’s climax comes out of nowhere. It’s as if the screenwriters ran out of ways to keep things going so just bunged on a big climactic action sequence. And what happens in it is pretty silly too, especially Neville’s self sacrifice — why not get in the Magic Safe Hole too and then chuck the grenade out? Perhaps he just has a death wish by that point. It would seem most of the audience did. There’s also a pathetic epilogue, and an even worse final line that attempts to make sense of the title.

I Am Legend is something of a disappointment. The considered and effective first half gives way to an increasingly nonsensical second, marred by numerous flaws that stack up til a near-laughable conclusion comes from nowhere. I’ve been told that the ‘alternate theatrical cut’, with a handful of additional scenes and a new ending, is marginally more effective. I’m sure I’ll watch it someday and share my thoughts. For now, I Am Legend’s two halves of differing quality just leave it in the middle of the road.

3 out of 5

I Am Legend is on Watch tonight, Saturday 11th October 2014, at 9pm. It’s on again on Tuesday, when I’ll (re-)share my thoughts on the so-called “Alternate Theatrical Version”.