By the 1950s, the automobile was well entrenched in American life on screen and off. Off-screen, it had helped build Detroit into a model city. The car established General Motors as the largest corporation in the United States. America’s transportation of choice spawned the drive-in theater, drive through restaurants and fueled suburbia’s domination. It even briefly brought us drive-in beer.
Drive-in beer! Yes, it was real.
American filmmakers have been equally as infatuated with the car as the rest of the country. It’s been a key player in hundreds of films, no more so than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). It’s Joe Gillis playing cat and mouse with the repo men trying to reclaim his car that leads him to land fortuitously at the doorstep of Norma Desmond. Later in Boulevard, Norma Desmond mistakes Paramount’s incessant calls as a sign that Cecil B. Demille, having read her Salome script, is eager to cast her in a new project. In reality, the studio wants to rent her rare luxury 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A for a film. It’s in this same vehicle that Desmond ferries a broke and broken Gillis around as a trophy, as a kept man. In Wilder’s hands, cars were lenses through which Gillis’s emasculation and desperation, as well as Desmond’s vain, delusional desire to hold on to her youth and reclaim the spotlight, are filtered.
“We don't need two cars, we have a car. Not one of those cheap new things made of chromium and spit, an Isotta-Fraschini. Have you ever heard of Isotta-Fraschini? All handmade. Cost me $28,000.” - Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
Two decades after Sunset Boulevard, 25-year-old Steven Spielberg and writer Richard Matheson would similarly use the nation’s love affair with the open road in constructing Duel, an ABC TV movie of the week into a taut thriller. Together, Spielberg and Matheson would use genre to engineer a psychological horror film that was as much a treatise on manhood, as it was pure Sunday night entertainment for the masses.
By the 1970s, the U.S. psyche and the car were intricately bound together. The image of cars lined up at the nation’s gas pumps during the 1973 oil crisis became so iconic that politicians, doomsayers, and the press continue to evoke it four decades later. Most recently after Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast in 2012. Growing from 25 million registered vehicles in 1950 to 111 million by 1970, America’s economy wasn’t built on the car, it was the car.
“Nobody's kid brother, this one stands on its own four tires.” - Advertising tagline for the 1960 Plymouth Valiant
At the center of Duel is Los Angeles salesman, David Mann (Dennis Weaver). At first glance with his salt and pepper hair, yellow tinted sunglasses, and mustache, no one would question that Mann is, well – a man. His swagger is evident as he blows off a gas station attendant’s suggestion that he needs a new radiator hose. The attendant is just looking for an upsell and Mann won’t fall for it. He enters the station, drops a dime into the payphone, and confidently props a foot up on a table. He’s a lone cowboy riding the highways.
His steed? A red Plymouth Valiant* that he drives proudly (he chides a bus driver to not sit on the hood because he’ll dent it).
However, there are cracks in Mann’s facade. When the gas attendant tells Mann “he’s the boss” after he declines to get the radiator hose, Mann sarcastically responds with “Not in my house, I'm not.” When he calls to apologize to his wife, Mann impotently defends his choice to not confront a neighbor aggressively hitting on his wife at a party the night before. Mann isn’t the definition of manhood he desperately wants to project.
Mann’s 90-minute battle with a tanker truck and its unseen driver will starkly reveal those chinks in his armor. The societal institutions in which he has placed his faith will fail him. As much confidence as he has in his Valiant, Mann will be forced to rely on more than his car’s speed and his nemesis’ perceived weaknesses. Mann is a lone cowboy riding the highways - and like all great movie cowboys, his flaws are magnified when the highways test him.
Duel is a masterclass in building tension and creating suspense though visuals, sound design and minimal dialogue. From a director, who was already the youngest director signed to a long-term deal with a major studio, it’s also a harbinger of things to come. This film is the prototype for Spielberg’s own Jaws in that it establishes Spielberg's interest in using genre to explore and comment on fathers, manhood and family. Most of all, it’s just a damn good movie featuring one of cinema’s most mysterious, haunting and enduring villains ever created.
*Ironically, the car was chosen not for its make and model. Spielberg only cared that the car be red so it would contrast against the desert and be easily visible in the film’s wide shots.
Charles Judson is the Artistic Director of the Atlanta Film Festival.