Mad Mann: Fury Road – Steven Spielberg’s Duel

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Duel, was Steven Spielberg’s 1971 television – movie calling card to the big leagues. It works not just as a primal gas guzzling thriller of implacable threat, between the little guy and an uncaring force that literally wants to squeeze him out of the frame. It’s also a study of both paranoia and modern male anxiety in a fast changing world. Had it gone even further, as I’ll discuss later, it could have easily slotted into The Twilight Zone territory.

Richard Matheson had adapted his own short story for television, to be produced by ABC. Spielberg’s secretary at Universal, Nona Tyson, saw it originally in Playboy and brought it to the wunderkind’s attention. A rough cut of his Columbo episode (Spielberg had a seven year contract as a television director with Universal) secured him the stand-alone gig in a Universal /ABC co-production, with a $400,000 dollar budget and 14 day location shoot. Spielberg eschewed any studio filming, working with veteran stunt co-ordinator Carey Loftin and the special camera rig attached to his protagonist’s car that Loftin used so spectacularly in Peter Yates’ preceding Bullitt.

The film essays a more eventful than usual day in the life of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) an unassuming salesman or some such, who leaves his safe, suburban home in his bright red Plymouth Valiant to travel anonymous Californian rural roads to a business meeting. Unintentionally drawing the ire of an unseen trucker behind the wheel of a belching, filthy, grease-dripping behemoth, his day rapidly turns to shit as the panicky, unbelieving Mann is drawn into a deadly duel which can ultimately have only one outcome.

Spielberg believed Weaver’s character to be “typical of that lower middle-class American who’s insulated by suburban modernisation.” Weaver subverts his “McCloud” tough-guy image to portray Spielberg’s proto-everyman “that never expects to be challenged by anything more than his television set breaking down and having to call the repair man.”

He hits the open road in a 4 ½ minute opening sequence, illustrated only by sound effects, the front bumper POV and diegetic radio dialogue, until we actually see his visage in the rear view mirror, where he fussily plays with his hair, limply flopping across his forehead. He’s running late and choking on the truck’s fumes  – “Talk about pollution!” he finally snorts, a little nervously (the rear of the container forebodingly reads “Flammable”, an indicator of the incendiary nature their conflict will develop). He then overtakes. Minutes later, the truck thunders past, occupying alpha status again. And so begins this escalating game of chicken and outright terror.

Mann pulls into a gas station, hoping not for the first time to put a little distance between them, the camera situated in front of where the car safely pulls up toward us. Then the truck swings next to the adjacent pump and thunders on, virtually swallowing the lens. It dominates the dusty forecourt and frame, horn sounding repeatedly for a fill-up. That pompous red car now looking hopelessly like a squashed tomato in its malevolent shadow.

The themes of urban male emasculation and class struggle thread throughout the film from the get-go, even if at the time the young director was oblivious to deeper readings – at a press conference in 1973 for the European extended theatrical release, angry Italian journalists reactions to his dismissal of this subtext (he saw it purely as a man versus machine thriller) later led him to reassess his own literal interpretations of his material. Spielberg reflected in Steven Awalt’s Steven Spielberg And Duel: The Making Of A Film Career: “It taught me to think a little bit more in the abstract…nobody ever sees the same picture the same way. It’s impossible.”

During the beginning of his journey as he tails behind his soon to be nemesis, Mann absently listens as a male caller on a radio show (actually a station sketch) states how he is confused about how to complete his census return. As the male, he is the traditional “head of household” yet he stays home and cooks and cleans while his wife goes out to work – his role has been usurped, and he’s not sure he likes it.

In the gas station, he tells the attendant to “Fill it with Ethel”. “As long as Ethel doesn’t mind,” the fellow cracks wise. Told he’s the boss, Mann automatically jokes “Not in my house I’m not.” This probably leads him to call his wife from the Laundromat next door and apologise for leaving under something of a cloud. He begins the call in an awkward looking, over masculine stance, long leg propped on a high counter, filling the frame, before his wife’s remonstrations sees him finish shrunken up next to the pay phone within a foreground dryer door. Emasculated in a domestic bubble, he absurdly asks if his wife expects him to challenge some fellow to a duel – a fellow who [she whispers] “practically raped” her at a party the previous night (an exaggeration they both acknowledge, but her husband’s response was to her sorely lacking).

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I read that Spielberg wasn’t happy with this scene in the extended, theatrical cut – I’m not sure if that related to the entirety, or the wife’s end back home, her in a pinny with kids at her feet. It certainly would work as well with just Weaver’s end of the conversation, better even – we could see him shrink in stature and imagine what deflates his ego.

At one point in his truck ordeal, Mann’s car careens off the road and slams into a wooden fence. He staggers dazedly from the vehicle and enters Chuck’s roadside café, making for the men’s room to clean up in an early Spielberg “oner”, using hand held camera backing up as Weaver advances through the door, down a corridor, around a corner and into the washroom. Mann is further isolated and shaken, reduced “as a man” in the eyes of fellow patrons as he shakily sits down in a pink-walled booth, glugging down glasses of water, tugging at his tie and limply choosing a cheese sandwich from the menu. Realising now that the truck driver has joined the clientele, he hunches over his measly meal, almost in a foetal position in this womb, set apart from the “real” men chowing down on burgers, the red-blooded American male’s meal of choice, at the counter. As his inner dialogue (redundantly) gabbles, he rubs at his temple and uselessly tries to pick his tormentor out from their ubiquitous jeans and cowboy boots.

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On the road, Spielberg is masterful at demonstrating how the truck dominates and intimidates Mann and his cherry red car (I wonder did his wife pick the colour?). The camera glides and zooms along the “war rig” zeroing in on its powerful wheels and the spinning tandem axle from below, its grubby, menacing grille bearing down on Mann’s rear bumper. Inside the car, the lens flits from rear mirror to side window,  Mann’s harried eyes constantly flicking for sight of his hunter.  At one point the truck’s mysterious occupant seems to tire of baiting Mann and idly waves him on into oncoming traffic. Even slowing down, or even stopping to let him get ahead (I’m not budging for at least an hour.”)  is no good – Mann is horrified to find the truck pulled in miles ahead, rolling across the road, taunting him. It seems a diesel breathing manifestation of demonic destiny, an 18-wheeled embodiment of the number of the beast.

Spielberg planned the route out in storyboards and road maps detailing specific camera positions and shots, even down to tumbleweed blowing across the road.

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Our hapless hero flags down a mom and pop old couple in an ancient 1950’s automobile, looking like they’ve just rolled back from Chuck Tatum’s cave-in carnival in Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole. The hen-pecked husband is practically battered into driving off without providing assistance (“We don’t want any trouble!”).  Mann needs an ace under the hood – this supercharged beast has him beat, and his radiator coils are about to act up…

One outstanding moment of bravura stunt-work and sheer terror is when he desperately pulls into another gas station (funnily enough, with caged critters that could have come straight out of Wilder’s tar black drama), and bolts for the phone booth to call the police. As the operator is putting him through, the rig bears down on him and he leaps clear just in time as it smashes the flimsy construction to smithereens, hauling around in a circle for another crack at him.

"I'm in a glass case of emotion!"

“I’m in a glass case of emotion!”

Spielberg captured the action with multiple cameras, Weaver diving clear himself. A surreal addition that would have edged this tale into Twilight Zone territory as suggested earlier might have been for Mann to catch a glimpse of the driver’s maniacal, laughing face at this point, and realise with a jolt he’s fighting himself, his primal id.

That would make a neat connection to how Mann finally beats him – after coaxing his ailing steed across the crest of a hill, he turns and wedges his monogrammed briefcase against the gas peddle and rams the beast, leaping out before they collide and tumble in a tangled heap of twisted metal into a gulch.

As the sun sets on the silhouetted “Valiant” hero, he flicks stones into the void, neutered no more. It’s almost an inverted coca-cola “Mad Man(n)” moment – reflecting on the world’s disharmony. It’s the real thing…

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For more great Spielberg content (and in honour of his 70th birthday) check out Paul Bullock‘s site, FDSS (From Director Steven Spielberg).

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