Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #24: Duel (dir by Steven Spielberg)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Tuesday, December 6th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

duel

On November 5th, I recorded the 1971 film Duel off of MeTV!

Duel tells the story of David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver).  The name is probably not a coincidence.  David is an “everyman,” if your idea of an everyman is a workaholic who is incapable of expressing his emotions.  David is driving through the California desert.  When he calls his wife (apparently, he left home in the morning without ever bothering to wake her), he tells her that he’s on a strict schedule and that he might lose an important sale if he’s delayed in any way.  You get the feeling, however, that David’s trip is less about business and more about a desire to get away from his life.  His conversation with his wife is strained and, when we watch him interact with a gas station attendant, we’re struck by how awkward David is.

Indeed, the only time that David seems to be really comfortable and relaxed is when he’s safely inside of his car.  When we first see him, he’s listening to a radio talk show and occasionally commenting on what he’s hearing.  David Mann has a better rapport with an unseen talk show host than he does with his own family.

Later, in the film, David is flagged down by a school bus that has stalled on the side of the road.  The bus driver asks David to give him a push.  For his part, David reacts with visible panic at the sight of several hyperactive children rushing towards his car. When they hop on his hood, David starts to frantically order them off.  It makes sense really.  The car is what he loves.

Of course, it’s not just bratty children that David has to deal with.  There’s also a gigantic truck traveling up and down the highway.  When David gets stuck behind the truck, he honks his horn.  He yells at the unseen driver.  He passes the truck at one point, just to have the truck promptly pass him so that it can continue to block him.  When the driver finally does motion for David to pass him, David changes lanes just to discover another car coming straight at him.

The truck’s driver, it turns out, wants to kill David.  Why does he want to kill David?  We’re never quite sure.  For that matter, we’re never quite sure what the truck is transporting, beyond the fact that it’s apparently flammable.  But the brilliance of Duel is that it doesn’t matter why the truck’s driver is trying to kill David. All that matters is that he’s determined to do so.

And David — the man who can’t even figure out how to have a conversation with his wife — must now try to figure out how to defeat a seemingly unstoppable predator…

Today, Duel is probably best known for being Steven Spielberg’s first film.  (It was a made-for-television production that got a theatrical release in Europe.)  Watching Duel (and Jaws, for that matter) it’s easy to imagine an alternative universe where, instead of becoming America’s best known creator of mainstream entertainment, Spielberg instead became one of America’s best horror director.  Duel is a suspense-filled thrill ride, one that’s scary because it remains rooted in reality.  Seriously, who hasn’t gotten nervous when they’ve found themselves sharing the road with a gigantic truck?

(If anything, I’d argue that Duel is scarier than Jaws.  I mean, I live in Dallas so it’s not like I have to worry about getting attacked by a shark.  On the other hand, I drive my car nearly every day.)

Dennis Weaver plays the archetype of what would become the typical Steven Spielberg protagonist and he does an excellent job in the role.  Weaver is on screen throughout the entire movie.  We see the entire story unfold through his eyes and Weaver gives a harrowing performance as a man who is slowly but steadily pushed to the verge of a breakdown by an enemy that he cannot even begin to comprehend.

If you haven’t seen Duel, you need to.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #36: WUSA (dir by Stuart Rosenberg)


wusaI recently saw the 1970 film WUSA on Movies TV.  After I watched it, I looked Joanne Woodward up on Wikipedia specifically to see where she was born.  I was surprised to discover that she was born and raised in Georgia and that she attended college in Louisiana.

Why was I so shocked?  Because WUSA was set in New Orleans and it featured Joanne Woodward speaking in one of the most worst Southern accents that I had ever heard.  A little over an hour into the film, Woodward’s character says, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  And while “What’s all the rhu…” sounds properly Southern, the “…barb” was pronounced with the type of harshly unpleasant overemphasis on “ar” that has given away many Northern actors trying to sound Southern.  Hence, I was shocked to discover that Joanne Woodward actually was Southern.

That said, her pronunciation of the word rhubarb pretty much summed up every problem that I had with WUSA.  Actually, the real problem was that she said “rhubarb” in the first place.  It came across as being the type of thing that a Northerner who has never actually been down South would think was regularly uttered down here.  And I will admit that WUSA was made 16 years before I was born and so, it’s entirely possible that maybe — way back then — people down South regularly did use the word rhubarb.  But, for some reason, I doubt it.  I know plenty of old Southern people and I’ve never heard a single one of them say anything about rhubarb.

As for WUSA, it’s a long and slow film.  A drifter named Reinhardt (Paul Newman) drifts into New Orleans and, with the help of an old friend who is now pretending to be a priest (Laurence Harvey), Reinhardt gets a job as an announcer at a right-wing radio station.  He reads extremist editorials that he doesn’t agree with and whenever anyone challenges him, he explains that he’s just doing his job and nothing matters anyway.

Reinhardt also gets himself an apartment and spends most of his time smoking weed with long-haired musician types, the exact same people that WUSA regularly denounces as being a threat to the American way.  Living in the same complex is Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), a former prostitute who has a scar on her face and who says stuff like, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  She falls in love with Reinhardt but finds it difficult to ignore what he does for a living.

Meanwhile, Geraldine has another admirer.  Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is an idealistic and neurotic social worker who is regularly frustrated by his efforts to do good in the world.  Reinhardt makes fun of him.  The local crime boss (Moses Gunn) manipulates him.  And WUSA infuriates him.  When Rainey realizes that WUSA is a part of a plot to elect an extremist governor, Rainey dresses up like a priest and starts carrying around a rifle.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt has been assigned to serve as emcee at a huge patriotic rally.  With Geraldine watching from the audience and Rainey wandering around the rafters with his rifle, Reinhardt is finally forced to take a stand about the people that he works for.

Or maybe he isn’t.

To be honest, WUSA is such a mess of a film that, even after the end credits roll, it’s difficult to figure out whether Reinhardt took a stand or not.

Anyway, WUSA is not a lost masterpiece and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  The film’s too long, there’s too many scenes of characters repeating the same thing over and over again, and neither Newman nor Woodward are particularly memorable.  (You know a movie is boring when even Paul Newman seems like a dullard.)  On the plus side, Anthony Perkins gives such a good performance that I didn’t once think about the Psycho shower scene while watching him.

As boring as WUSA is, I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that it hasn’t been rediscovered.  Considering that it’s about a right-wing radio station, I’m surprised that there haven’t been hundreds of pretentious think pieces trying to make the connection between WUSA and Fox News.  But, honestly, even if those think pieces were out there, it probably wouldn’t do much for WUSA‘s repuation.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Paul Newman called it, “the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best.”  Paul Newman’s opinion aside, WUSA is pretty dire.