Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Spielberg's Visions of the American Highway: Duel & The Sugarland Express

Duel and The Sugarland Express were both directed by Steven Spielberg at the start of his storied career. Both films put the American road front and center. Duel, based on a Richard Matheson short story, follows salesman David Mann as he's being terrorized by an unseen truck driver. Duel proved to be Spielberg’s breakout film, earning a theatrical release in Europe and the financing to make his first feature film for Universal, The Sugarland Express. Loosely based on an actual event that occurred in Texas in April of 1969, the film follows a fugitive couple who took a state highway patrolman hostage in a doomed scheme to prevent their child from being placed in foster care. Both road pictures, each one uses their respective settings with skill and ingenuity. 

The road serves as a stage for 1970s American life in Duel and The Sugarland Express, a zone of high drama where life and death decisions are made every second. Full of contradictions, the roads are places of conflict, freedom, alienation, loneliness, overcrowding, a means of escape and entrapment. In Duel, past American iconography morphs into an uncertain future. The Sugarland Express presents a complex view of contemporary life: the road serves as a stage for the chaos of American, prescient of the decades to come with a mass media feeding a public obsessed with the pseudo-event and to quote the film's co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins, "achieving fame without notoriety." 


Duel: The Road as a Cultural Combat Zone

Duel came to Spielberg’s attention after his assistant suggested the Matheson short story which had appeared in Playboy, knowing the story played to his sensibility. For the DVD release Spielberg expressed his admiration for Matheson, especially his teleplays for The Twilight Zone. Matheson also adapted Duel into a screenplay which impressed Spielberg, providing precision guidance on how to shoot the car chase (the film would contain minimal dialogue). 

Dennis Weaver was cast as David Mann since Spielberg was a fan of Weaver’s performance as the paranoid motel keeper in Touch of Evil, making him an ideal casting choice as the terrified motorist. Under intense pressure from ABC to complete filming in 10 days, the studio was so impressed with Spielberg's footage they granted him extra time to complete the film. The original version of Duel which aired on television was 74 minutes long. Spielberg was granted permission to film additional scenes to qualify for a theatrical run. Purists prefer the minimalist TV version which is more focused on the action. Additional scenes filmed included a phone call between Mann and his wife. Unfortunately, the DVD and Blu-Ray releases only contain the extended version, not as it originally aired on November 13, 1971.

A POV shot opens Duel, taking the viewer on a journey from Mann's home suburbia, into the city, and finally into the open country. Outskirts of the cities had yet to be turned into vast sprawls of strip malls and fast-food plazas that are all too familiar to motorists today. The isolated highway Mann travels evokes a sense of desolation, sparsely littered with truck stops and roadside attractions. He's running late for a meeting with his boss and dealing with the fallout after an argument with his wife the night before. References are frequently made to Mann losing power in his household, evidenced in a clever visual of him framed inside a washing machine. A caller into a radio show Mann's listening to drones on about not being the head of his household (he takes care of the children while his wife works). It's an unrecognizable talk radio before the Fairness Doctrine was repealed (allowing right wing blowhards to dominate the AM airwaves).

Annoyed at the slow-moving truck ahead of him chugging exhaust in his face, Mann makes a quick pass. Then the truck speeds up on Mann and passes him. Then the truck slows down again, making it clear he's playing a game of chicken. Frightened after being run off the road, Mann takes refuge at a Café, and wonders if anyone can "drive on a public highway without someone trying to kill you.” The café resembles a remnant of the prototypical Western saloon where violent confrontations were common. Out of his element amongst the blue-collar truckers who look at him with suspicion and contempt, Mann’s sense of fear and disorientation is emphasized by the shaky camera following him around. Realizing the driver is now parked outside the café, Mann eyes the place for possible suspects, all are dressed the same way in denim jeans, shirts, and boots. The unofficial uniform of a Western trucker I presume.

Mann stumbles into a fight after sheepishly confronting a trucker he believes to be the culprit and gets himself punched out. Weaver never plays Mann as a likable character, he's often fussy and even winey when talking to his wife or dealing with a zealous gas station attendant. Mann is nothing at all like a male archetype of the time like Steve McQueen: clumsy driving, averse to confrontation, and a seething self-pity over his lot in life. Part of the Duel’s power stems from Mann coming to terms with the situation at hand and overcoming it, but by no means in the way audiences were used to seeing from male actors of the era. Duel subverts expectations by tilting towards reality, the way any person would react when being terrorized by an unknown assailant. As Spielberg’s proto-everyman, echoes of the character would occur in many of his later films in a more polished form, Chief Brody in Jaws being one example.

The desert highway serves as a battleground during the second half of the film (with detours along the way). There’s the red herring of the broke down school bus. When Mann proves unable to help the stranded children (further emphasizing his ineffectual nature) he gets mocked by the kids, the trucker comes along and saves them. During the final section Mann and the trucker are far from civilization as their chase plays itself out. The display of trophies on the truck (in the form of state license plates on his cab) represent the kills of a hunter. Only when Mann starts to fight back do the odds even out.

Duel has invited comparison to other films of the era dealing with masculinity, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs with their shared focus on imperiled masculinity (Friedman 129-132). Spielberg allows Mann to be redeemed at the end as he sits gazing at the sunset in hollow victory. European critics saw class struggle in Duel, pitting the working against the professional class, much to Spielberg's surprise. The class theme is best expressed in the café sequence. Road rage, trucks, and embittered white masculinity are a real social phenomenon Duel foresaw.

Spielberg has spoken of the truck in Duel being a metaphor for the hostile forces facing the individual. The lone individual verses a hostile world is a recurring theme in Matheson’s work as well from I am Legend to The Incredible Shrinking ManThe last act of Duel emphasizes the primal side to the story, not unlike Jaws. It's no coincidence Spielberg chose the same sound effect for the crashing truck and exploded shark.



The Sugarland Express: The Road as Metaphor

Executives at Universal were initially cool towards The Sugarland Express because of its downbeat ending. Yet the promise Spielberg displayed in Duel got him the green light to film The Sugarland Express on location in Texas. With Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins putting the finishing touches on their script, Spielberg scouted locations in Texas with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Goldie Hawn was cast in the lead role as Lou Jean. Other members of the cast included William Atherton as Clovis, Ben Johnson as Captain Tanner, and Michael Sacks as Officer Slide. Many of the extras were locals. 

The opening shot focuses in on a road sign points in all directions evoking the wide spaces and extensive landscape of Texas. The camera follows Lou Jean to the holding facility where she plans to break out her husband Clovis, at the tail end of a sentence for petty larceny. Wearing multiple layers of clothing, Lou Jean provides Clovis with civilian clothes to smuggle him out despite his protest he’ll be released in a few months. They convince an elderly couple to give them a ride, the old man proceeds to get pulled over for driving too slowly. In a tight spot, Clovis and Lou Jean hijack the police cruiser and take Officer Slide hostage.

A chase ensues that will draw the attention of the entire Texas Highway Patrol and become a "media event." Captain Tanner as played by Ben Johnson, a veteran actor known for Westerns, Tanner's portrayed as a man out of place in the 1970s. He finds himself having to contend with the fugitives, keeping his own command under control, and all the extra mania surrounding the chase. Spielberg often lets the camera linger on Tanner’s face as he looks on with disbelief at the circus antics going on around him. His only display of anger is aimed at the vigilantes who decided to take the law into their own hands, firing upon Lou Jean and Clovis and almost hitting Officer Slide. Later, Tanner shoots out the tires of a TV news crew attempting to get an exclusive interview during the chase.

The stop in Rodrigo towards the end of the journey best illustrates the surreal nature of the film. The entire town of Rodrigo greets Clovis and Lou Jean as conquering heroes. They're offered gifts including a pig and a teddy bear (used as a symbol on the movie poster). The scene was inspired by Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Yet the initial excitement quickly gives way to weariness as Clovis stares on in disbelief at what he's been pulled into by Lou Jean. As the chaos intensifies the marching band music goes out of tune, adding to the mood and a forecast of the futility and eventual doom of the situation.

The elegiac, but somber, final shot captures the tragedy of the ending, the death of Clovis and a broken family. Everything about the enterprise, once a source of so much excitement is suddenly yesterday's news, a minor footnote to history. Everyone involved, including Tanner, are dwarfed by the event, and even somehow diminished.

Gun culture, while in the background, is also present throughout the film. In a Western everyone carries a firearm, but in The Sugarland Express it borders on unnerving. The vigilantes have a prominent bumper sticker “REGISTER COMMUNISTS, NOT GUNS! When they open fire at the car lot things quickly slip out of control, unable to handle their own weapons. The young boy with the men looks on horror at the real consequences of violence. At Rodrigo, the highway patrol compensates a pile of guns from armed citizens also looking to take the law into their own hands. These raw depictions of an armed citizenry are both absurd and frightening, not an anti-gun message per se, but simply a part of the culture's tapestry. 

If Duel channels a ghostly America of desolate highways, The Sugarland Express warns of a hellscape in the making, anticipating a declining infrastructure and a celebrity obsessed culture. Consumerism intrudes everywhere in the guise of garish billboards and the intrusion of fast food at the onset of its prevalence over American life (at one point Clovis and Lou Jean eat McDonald's food). The landscape is dotted with gigantic used car lots and gas stations signaling America’s unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels. Traffic jams were a recurring motif in many films of the New Hollywood era, Five Easy Pieces and Nashville come to mind, Spielberg presents the road as a landscape of clogged traffic and reckless drivers eschewing safety played to comic effect. The cars themselves often break down, the human need for speed and movement proves too much, like the guns, cars are merely tools dangerous and unpredictable.

Spielberg said his intention was to indict the media as a “circus on wheels.” From a 21st Century perspective, the film was almost prophetic in predicting the social media phenomenon. Spielberg stated in the same interview, “today any one of us can create a major news story by doing the smallest, most simple, neurotic act.” Lou Jean, who Spielberg considered the antagonist of the story, gets way too caught up in all the attention and fame and loses sight of why she embarked on the madcap journey. In the scene when take in a quiet moment watching a drive showing Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon, the metaphor of Looney Tunes makes perfect sense.

Duel and The Sugarland Express reveal Spielberg as uncanny observer of American life. The road as a place where the anxieties and hassles of American life play out every day are given meaning through Spielberg's cinematic visions. If Jack Kerouac imagined roads as a sanctuary of freedom and possibility, Spielberg presents a more ominous view: an extension of American consumer society and never ending cultural conflict. From road rage to bumper sticker sloganeering to embittered masculinity brandishing rifles and pickups - the road was -and is- a dangerous place.

Works Cited

Citizen Spielberg by Lester Friedman

Steven Spielberg: Interviews Edited by Lester Friedman

Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride


 

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