I take a look at the movie that started one of the biggest careers in Hollywood.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a traveling salesman on the road in the Mojave Desert in the early 1970s. While out on a long stretch of highway, David encounters an old Peterbilt 281 tanker truck driving on the road. Trying to avoid the smoke coming out of it, David passes the truck, only for it to immediately pass him. David finally passes it another time, leading it to honk angrily at him as he leaves it behind. The truck catches up at a gas station, with the driver unseen except for his hands and boots. The attendant tells David he needs a new radiator hose, but David declines, thinking it’s unnecessary. David calls to apologize to his wife for a fight the night before when she was accosted by a “friend” of David’s, before setting off again.
The truck catches up to David, goes around him, then blocks any of David’s attempts to pass. Eventually, the driver waives David past at a curve, only for David to almost hit an oncoming car. David, in a hurry for an appointment, passes the truck using an unpaved turnout, with the driver seemingly giving up. A few minutes later, though, the truck comes roaring back and tailgates David at an absurd speed, eventually causing him to spin out and crash into a fence. He goes into a nearby diner, then sees the truck outside. He tries to figure out which of the people in the diner is the driver, but when he confronts one, they hit him and drive off in a different truck. The Peterbilt 281 then starts up, revealing that the driver was never inside the diner.
David takes off again, now believing that he’s following the truck, only to be flagged down by a stuck school bus asking for a push. He tries to push it, but gets caught underneath just as the truck arrives. David panics, fearing for the school kids, and manages to get the car unstuck, but the truck pushes the kids back on the road. David starts driving, confused, and ends up at a railroad crossing. The truck comes up behind him and tries to push him into the train, but David barely avoids it, letting the truck finally get completely ahead of him. David slows down to let the truck get more distance, but the truck just waits for him beside the road. David stops to call the police and the truck destroys the phone booth just as he gets out of it. David tries to hide, but the truck is again waiting for him. He tries to get help from strangers, but the truck threatens them and they run. The truck starts flat-out chasing David just as his radiator hose finally gives out, overheating the car. He loses speed as the car dies, but manages to coast down a hill in neutral before crashing. He ends up restarting his car and uses his briefcase to send his car into the truck. When they collide, David’s car bursts into flames, blinding the driver, who goes over a cliff, roaring as the truck descends. David sits on the edge as the sun sets and throws rocks into the canyon.
This category was “First Film By A Great Director,” and I knew I was going to pick this film from the start. The only other contenders were Reservoir Dogs, because I love that film, and Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s first movie, because it’s hilariously bad. However, Duel has the rare distinction of being made at just the right time and for just the right budget that it shows everyone what Steven Spielberg was going to become, rather than just showing Steven Spielberg as we would come to know him. For those of you who would point out that the first “feature-length” thing directed by Spielberg was an episode of The Name of the Game or that, since Duel was made-for-TV, his first “theatrical feature” was The Sugarland Express, I say to you: The former was a TV episode, not a movie, Duel was released in limited theaters both domestic and abroad, and you suck. Sugarland Express is a good movie, though.
The key to Duel, much like Jaws, is in the mystery. You never see the driver of the truck. That was explicitly the intent of the script written by Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend and sixteen episodes of the original The Twilight Zone. Because you never know what the person behind it is thinking or doing, you instead start to fear the truck itself and the honking associated with it. You get the same experience from Jaws when you hear the musical score and see open water. You don’t know where the danger is, but you know it could be there. To emphasize the nature of the truck as the true enemy, Spielberg actually selected the Peterbilt truck seen in the film, because it appeared to have a face. Stephen King would later decide to throw out all subtlety in his directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive, by just putting a face on the truck. There’s a reason Spielberg is the one with the Oscars.
The film has almost no dialogue, with most of the words in the film being David’s “inner voice.” We never hear a single word from the driver, only the honks and the roaring of the engine. The most David speaks to another person is in the diner, and even then much of the dialogue is in his head. What we do here is mostly natural conversation or stream of consciousness. That means that the film relies on a lot of visual storytelling, without much in the way of exposition. This makes us relate very strongly to David throughout, and, by only giving us his thoughts, putting us in a vulnerable position the same way that he is. It makes his ultimate triumph all the greater for the viewer. Dennis Weaver was a great casting choice, because he can play normal and also crazed well, giving us a nice range between how he is at the beginning and how he slowly mentally devolves through the horrible experience of the film.
There is one more major thing in the movie that really, to me, tells of how well Spielberg understands filmmaking, and it’s easy to miss. At the beginning of the film, we’re in a POV shot of a car driving out of a city and random, changing, radio transmissions. Right before David catches up to the truck, however, we hear a radio discussion of a man talking about his insecurities of not being the head of his household. He reveals that he wears a house dress and slippers while his wife is the breadwinner. As David listens to this, he finally decides to pass the truck, setting off the events of the movie. We later find out that David had previously fought with his wife over the fact that David wasn’t willing to stand up for her recently. So, as David hears about this man who is afraid of appearing emasculated, that’s when he, as a man who has also recently been emasculated, tries to reclaim his manhood by passing the truck. As a result, he ends up drawing the eye of an apparent serial killer and being victimized for the rest of the movie. It’s that subtle motivation that most movies would miss, but Spielberg nails.
Overall, you really need to see this movie if you haven’t. It’s a hell of a film and it’s been referenced in video games, other movies, television (including Tiny Toons), music videos, and even anime (Lupin III had a reference to it in the 1970s). All despite originally being a movie of the week on ABC.
I admit, the title’s a little off. Welles actually made several amazing films, it just happens that one of them was Citizen Kane. That movie overshadows the rest because it’s usually considered one of the greatest films ever made, if not the greatest. I think that film’s a lot like the works of Shakespeare: You don’t have to love it, or even like it, but if you don’t at least acknowledge how much it shaped the future of the medium, well, then you are just being an asshole. It’s like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Psycho or even The Matrix. These are films that contain things so original that they simply didn’t exist before the directors created them. Sure, nowadays they seem obvious, but, at the time of their creation, they were revolutionary.
But, Citizen Kane‘s not the movie I’m reviewing, so enough about that. Instead, I’m here to review A Touch of Evil a film that isn’t quite the innovation of Citizen Kane, but it is still one of the most hard-hitting and brilliant works of film noir we have. So why is it overlooked? Well, because of studio meddling.
See, Welles adapted this screenplay from a novel called The Badge of Evil, but he wasn’t supposed to direct it, only to act in it. As to how he ended up directing it, there are two stories: Either A) Charlton Heston agreed to play the lead only if Welles was behind the camera or B) Welles agreed to do it for no director’s fee because he wanted to prove that he could take a terrible script, re-write it, and make a great movie. Either way, the studio acquiesced. Then, after the film was finished, they re-cut and re-shot parts of the film under director Harry Keller, which apparently made it pretty awful. It was actually released as a literal B-movie, designed to be part of a double feature. They even superimposed credits on the opening, which is considered one of the greatest shots in film history. Hell, the poster makes it clear they had no idea what the movie was about. Fortunately, in 1976, they re-released the movie with much of the deleted footage worked back in (this was the first version I saw). Then, in 1998, Academy Award-winning Film and Sound Editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti) finally re-cut the film as close to the original as he could, using a 58-page memo Welles wrote as a guide. Unfortunately, the original cut has long been destroyed, because some men are dumb enough to shit on a pile of gold and think they’ve made it better.
But, they put the 1998 version on Netflix, and I’m not gonna pass up an opportunity to re-watch one of the most amazing films ever made. I’m doing a full summary on this one at the bottom, so if you want all my notes and observations, go down and click “continue reading.” If not, enjoy the summary and analysis and WATCH THE F*CKING MOVIE. Unlike many films I review, watching this one will actually make you a better person.
A man plants a bomb in a car in a town on the US-Mexico border, which then explodes just over the border into America, killing two people inside the car. Investigating the crime are Mexican drug enforcement officer Ramon Vargas (Charlton “Yes, I’m playing a Mexican in this, it’s 1957, deal with it” Heston) and celebrated American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan is famous for having incredible intuition combined with strong powers of deduction, seemingly able to determine guilt or innocence almost instantly.
The pair go to check out a suspect named Sanchez (Victor Millan) and, while using the bathroom at the suspect’s apartment, Vargas knocks over an empty shoebox. However, a few minutes later, Quinlan goes into the bathroom, then leaves to have his men search it. They find dynamite in the same shoebox. Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting evidence. Quinlan denies it, insists that the suspect is guilty, and says no one will believe him because he’s biased towards Mexicans like Sanchez.
However, Vargas starts to look into Quinlan and shows documentation to Quinlan’s superiors which suggest he’s been planting evidence. In response, Quinlan tells them that Vargas and his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), are drug addicts. Quinlan has also started drinking again, having been sober for the last 12 years.
Meanwhile, Susan is harassed by “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a gangster Vargas is set to testify against. She goes with Vargas to the US and is dropped off at a motel, which ends up being owned by Grandi, who sends his men to disturb her for days until they abduct her. Grandi convinces Quinlan to help him frame Vargas so that he can’t ruin either of them. After leaving an unconscious Susan in a room filled with drugs, Quinlan betrays Grandi and strangles him to death, leaving Susan to be charged with his murder.
Quinlan’s partner, Pete (Joseph Calleia), finds Quinlan’s cane at the site of the murder, however, and tells Vargas. Vargas has Pete wear a wire and eventually Quinlan admits to killing Grandi and planting evidence, but says that he’s never done anything to anyone who wasn’t guilty. Quinlan realizes what’s happening and shoots Pete on a bridge using Vargas’ gun. Vargas confronts Quinlan. Quinlan tries to shoot Vargas before a dying Pete shoots Quinlan, who falls into a filthy runoff stream.
However, as the movie ends, it’s revealed that Quinlan was correct about Sanchez, who actually was the bomber. Quinlan’s ex-lover Tanya (Marlene “I might be the sexiest woman to ever live” Dietrich) looks at his corpse in the river and remarks:
He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?
Seriously, see this film. The movie is filled with amazing shots that we just don’t see many directors even try. There are a number of long takes in the movie where characters move in and out of the focus of the scene, but the big one is the opening shot. It’s a single shot that is 200 seconds long and it manages to set the tone, relay the setting, introduce the main characters and the initial conflict, and ratchets the tension up to 11. Here, watch it now:
I’ve never been to film school, but even I know how incredible it is to come up with a shot like that, just from a practicality standpoint. I also know that François Truffaut would be inspired by it to do the opening of his 1973 movie Day for Night and is literally name-dropped in Robert Altman’s 1992 movie The Player’s opening shot as an example of something that films just don’t do anymore. So, two of the most famous opening shots on film are actually inspired by this one. This movie has a ton of long takes and single tracking shots like this. Hell, you can almost tell which scenes Welles directed and which scenes of Keller’s were left in just by judging the length of the cuts.
Welles also does several foreground/background scenes in the film, where characters enter in the background while they’re being discussed or referenced in the foreground, similar to his famous shot of the child version of Charles Foster Kane playing in the snow in the background of a flashback in Citizen Kane. He uses the Dutch Tilt when a character is feeling insane or drunk, but only when it actually would emphasize it, not as a matter of course, something filmmakers should make a note about. The lighting is also classic Welles, where a character is lit more for their attitude than for any practical purpose. So, when a character is being corrupt, the light tends to disappear around them. A noticeable one is when Grandi first convinces Quinlan to join him, after Quinlan has finally taken a drink, the light literally goes out behind Quinlan as Grandi asks him to have a drink to cement their partnership.
There are also a number of shots which make rooms and characters seem bigger or smaller than they should be for effect, notably making Welles tower over Tamiroff before he strangles him to death.
The score should also be mentioned, because it was done by Henry Mancini, the guy who won 4 Oscars and 20 Grammys for songs like “Moon River” and the Pink Panther theme and film scores like Days of Wine and Roses and The Great Mouse Detective. This one has some Jazz elements in it which help play up the noir elements of the movie. It’s not Mancini’s best, but that’s like saying this isn’t the best painting by Picasso; it’s still pretty damned good.
Okay, aside from all the great style, the script is also amazing. There are some great exchanges in the film, but one of the best ones is actually in one scene I mentioned. As Grandi is trying to convince Quinlan, the detective, basically without thinking, takes a drink of bourbon after saying he hasn’t given him an answer yet. Then, a minute later, Grandi asks if they should drink to their partnership, and Quinlan responds with “I don’t…” before realizing that he’s already taken the drink, meaning he’s really already agreed to do it and just hadn’t admitted it to himself. This is the moment that Quinlan makes the choice he can’t take back, just like having the drink undid his dedicated sobriety.
It’s also notable that almost nothing in the film is extraneous, with even the smaller details like Quinlan leaving his cane in one scene playing into the overall narrative later, even though they might seem to serve a shallower purpose at the time. Also, I do think that, particularly for a 1950s Film, Susan is actually a pretty strong female character. No, she’s not the focus of the film, but she has her own agency in most of the scenes until she’s left at the motel. At that point, she’s helpless, but anyone in that situation would be. It’s kind of a downer that she serves just as an object after that point, but still, for the first half she was actually pretty strong.
The contrast between Vargas and Quinlan is made clear at several points, with Vargas stating his belief that officers have to first and foremost uphold the law and Quinlan saying that the point of the police is to catch the bad guys. However, the reason Quinlan believes this is because his wife’s murderer got away due to lack of evidence, which is the cause of his alcoholism. Quinlan is also depicted as addicted to candy when he’s sober, to the point that he’s unrecognizable to Tanya due to the weight he’s put on, an indication that Quinlan isn’t capable of ignoring his worse instincts, only of trying to substitute a less harmful habit in their place, much like how he subverted his desire to kill the man who murdered his wife into planting evidence to ensure no other murderers get away.
Which brings us the best part of the movie: That Quinlan was right. In fact, throughout the movie, Quinlan is almost unfailingly right. He instantly knows not only what Sanchez has done and how he did it, but also why (he secretly married the rich victim’s daughter). He figures out what Grandi is going to ask him almost instantly. He knows from first glance that Vargas is someone who will challenge him and immediately becomes combative. Even when almost blackout drunk, he sees a wired Pete and remarks “I thought you were Vargas,” implying his subconscious is telling him that Vargas is listening. And throughout the film, Quinlan states that he never planted evidence on anyone that he wasn’t sure was guilty.
The film pits Vargas’s belief that police serve the law first against Quinlan’s belief that police should be putting bad guys away. Vargas constantly tells people to think about all the innocents that Quinlan put away, however, the film implies heavily that Quinlan actually never did put an innocent away. Yes, Quinlan is dead at the end, floating in a river of filth, but even then, the characters remark that he was an amazing detective, but a lousy cop. And it’s that ambiguity that I love, because it means that Vargas wasn’t completely right, either.
Vargas kept harping upon all the people that would be innocently convicted because of Quinlan, but if Quinlan never actually planted evidence on an innocent person, then has he really done any harm? He’s managed to put away a number of murderers who otherwise would have gone free. It’s a matter of principle versus practicality. In practice, Quinlan is more effective, however, Vargas is upholding the general principle that should guide law enforcement. Quinlan is also driven more by instinct and belief, tending to “sense” things and believe in mysticism, whereas Vargas is grounded solely in evidence and reality. Quinlan is a mythological figure, having almost supernatural ability, being destroyed by the modern age’s new principles which are more than just “bad guy vs. good guy.” At the end, Vargas is alive and victorious, but Quinlan still was right. It’s like a Zen Buddhist kōan, a story which has no simple answer, because the point is that you think about it, not that you find the right solution.
Now, I will say there is one thing I truly don’t like about this film, and I’m not alone. The Night Manager character played by Dennis Weaver is just bizarre. He runs the motel where Susan is left, and he has such strange habits and ways of speaking that I almost can’t understand it. Well, looking at Welles’ memo, sadly, the character was his, but apparently the scenes that explained why he was crazy were lost, so he remains a very odd series of moments in the film that can’t be removed. However, I will justify his existence right now:
So, in November 1957, Serial Killer Ed Gein was arrested and inspired Robert Bloch to start writing Psycho. 3 months later, the original version of this film came out, featuring a very weird night manager of a motel that’s far enough off the main road that a woman staying there is at his mercy. Now, Ed Gein didn’t run a motel, but do you know who did? Norman Bates. Am I saying the Robert Bloch saw Weaver’s interaction with Janet Leigh and was inspired to use that as the job of his psychopath who would later interact on film with Janet Leigh? Yes. Is there any evidence of that? None whatsoever. But, this is the internet, so I don’t have to have any evidence to start a rumor. Enjoy.
I wish more people would see this movie. I think that it stands in contrast to most modern films in terms of level of thought put into each shot and how much ambiguity it leaves its audience. At the end of this film, you have stuff to think about, and that’s what makes the difference between imagery and art.