This weekend, the city of Chicago was buzzing with the opening of their annual Auto Show taking place Feb 11-20th at The McCormick Place. This is the nation’s largest show of its kind and always attracts a loyal group of gearheads & those interested in checking out the latest models. One year I recall sitting inside a replica of the tour jeep used in 1993’s Jurassic Park. Regardless of past participation, I must confess that I’m not much of a car person; if the damned thing runs I honestly don’t care what it looks like. However, there are some vehicles on the Silver Screen that I can’t help but admire.
My definition of the perfect auto show would feature a few of Hollywood’s most lethal automotives; sort of an “Auto Show from Hell,” with a veritable who’s who of wheeled terrors. These would include the infamous Christine in her various beaten down stages – the pristine version sitting at the center of the display in all her shiny, red glory.
Further down the aisle would be the black coupe seen in 1977’s The Car. Its windows are opaque and when the passenger door mysteriously swings open, it reveals driverless, empty seats.
Other killer vehicles on display would include the diabolical 4X4 in one of the stories featured in 1983’s Nightmares, the Green Goblin truck from Maximum Overdrive, and the dark and mysterious limousine from The Hearse. Even service vehicles are capable of their own brand of road rage, like the alien possessed bulldozer, affectionately referred to as Killdozer, in a hard to find, 1974 made-for-TV movie.
Somewhere towards the back of the event, not far from a concession stand that serves $5 cola’s and $10 beers, is a lone, vintage tanker truck. Most visitors would barely give it a second glance as it has no distinguishing features nor much in the way of color. Despite it’s rather plain appearance, it is far from an ordinary truck. For this worn down 1955 Peterbilt 281 served as the main antagonist in the 1971 made-for TV movie – Duel. This feature not only stands out as one of best made-for-TV movies and unappreciated thrillers, but is also notable for being the fledgling film of a then unknown director, Steven Spielberg.
While the aforementioned vehicles have minds of their own, this one isn’t supernatural at all. There is a human driver, though he’s never clearly seen, keeping the viewer’s focus on the truck itself. This was highly effective at creating the illusion of being pursued by a “monster” while never venturing from reality. In fact, this film was based on a short story written by Richard Matheson who stated he found inspiration while actually being tailgated by a troublesome trucker.
What this film lacks in plot it makes up for in pure “cat & mouse” tension. Salesman, David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver), is relentlessly pursued by the old truck after apparently angering its driver during a pass. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve irked one of our fellow drivers (of course we’re more cognizant of when others do it to us) while daydreaming behind the wheel. During these times, there’s that awkward moment where you can’t wait for one of you to change course while trying not to look at the driver who, no doubt, is waiting to give you the finger. This film takes road rage to a whole different level and Weaver does such an amazing job playing the “average joe.” You honestly can’t help but relate to his plight and this obviously kicks the terror threshold to a whole nother gear (see what I did there?). In any event, you’ll want to take care not to upset anyone driving anything bigger than you are after watching this film!
Like the film, The Car, this takes place on remote desert roads, thereby providing Mr. Mann with little escape nor assistance. Duel, however, is almost all suspense leading to a similar, yet much more satisfying conclusion. My only complaint lies with the scenes where the viewer can “hear” Mann’s thoughts. I felt that Weaver was a good enough actor that we can pretty much tell exactly what he’s thinking without the need for it to be audible.
While this may not be one of the top 5 (or 10) movies that come to mind when mentioning the extraordinary filmography of Steven Spielberg, it can certainly be said that it was tantamount to his success. While shot for television, positive feedback would lead to a theatrical version being released overseas. This was accomplished by adding about 18 minutes of footage along with some profanity to further distance itself from its TV counterpart. The success of Duel caused studios to take note of young Spielberg, eventually leading to his being handed the reigns of a certain blockbuster named JAWS. In fact, Spielberg often states that JAWS was really an underwater version of Duel. In a special homage to his virgin voyage, Spielberg actually injected sounds from this movie’s conclusion to the slain shark as it sinks to bottom of the depths. I should also mention that Duel is said to have inspired the opening scene in controversial director, Victor Salva’s, Jeeper’s Creepers.
If you haven’t seen Duel then I strongly urge you to do so. Just don’t do it right before taking a road trip.
…and just when you thought it was safe to go to the Auto Show!