Duel (Steven Spielberg / U.S., 1971):

All of Steven Spielberg's early apprenticeship on the small screen funneled into ninety minutes of concentrated visual dynamicism. The greatest of all TV movies, or merely the one that best understands cinema? In either case, the image is lapidated in terms of movement from the start, camera mounted on a bumper and zipped from the suburban garage to the No Man's Land of arid highways. The POV is the car's, a Valiant Plymouth piloted by Dennis Weaver, a henpecked businessman and the director's trademark protagonist, white, middle-class, and about to find out just how fragile a veil keeps civilization from flying off the handle. Evil here is a bestial ten-wheeler, covered in grease and dust and pollution, headlights reflected like evil eyes as the behemoth bears down, inexplicably, on the hapless hero. The radio chatter of the opening gives way to anguished mental monologue at a roadside restaurant, following a close-shave whiplash -- the splendid handheld long take follows him into the bathroom, relived that the terror is over, only to go back out and find the truck parked outside, Weaver "right back in the jungle," still. The human culprit, as befits the Kafka-Borges intimations of Richard Matheson's teleplay, gets distilled to pointy cowboy boots and a hairy arm waving Weaver onto traffic, but the main menace is the malefic machine he drives, blaring horns and "inflammable" printed on its back, predator-prototype for shark and dinosaur. Action is limited for the pas de deux, and a challenge trumped by the ingenious upstart -- rearview mirrors and windshields become parts of the mise en scène, the canvas of yellow dust, blue skies, pavement and phone posts surveyed from a stupefying variety of angles. Weaver calls home from a gas station early on so a laundromat door in the foreground can add to the already deep-focus composition, while the truck pushing the car onto the path of an incoming train is storyboarded montage a la Hitchcock -- and like Hitchcock, young Spielberg envisions a world of dread, the villain's demise cathartic and desolating.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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