Dennis Weaver

Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg), the theatrical version

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil is a visceral experience. Welles’s long takes and long sequences–in particular, the opening tracking shot, the apartment interrogation scene and the oil field interrogation at the end, these sequences depend on the viewer’s understanding of geography. Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty brilliantly establish the setting; then Welles does whatever he can to distract the viewer from it. Evil is active, whether through the movements of its characters, the camera, or even how Henry Mancini’s score works. The film is always moving.

The narrative is simple, if truncated–even without the studio interference, the narrative would be truncated. Welles plays a dirty cop who finally gets called on it by a Mexican police officer, played by Charlton Heston–yes, Evil is the film where you get to watch Charlton Heston play a Mexican. While Heston works to prove a pattern of corruption (mostly off-screen, making the revelation scenes all the more striking), Welles buddies up with Akim Tamiroff, who’s out to discredit Heston. But Welles starts the story being about Heston and Janet Leigh as newlyweds; they’re downright charming folks. He eschews a character study of his own character, he eschews juxtaposing that corruption story against Tamiroff’s plotting, which might work too. All for mainstream, studio acceptance. It’s a movie starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh after all. Shouldn’t they be more important than Tamiroff or Joseph Calleia?

They “should,” but they aren’t. And Welles is upfront about it. Once Heston and Leigh split onto their own storylines in the first act, Heston spends his time playing second fiddle (not so for Leigh) to the supporting players. Heston enables wonderful scenes from Calleia, Heston and Ray Collins. Leigh has a great scene with Tamiroff before playing terrified. She’s good terrified, but she doesn’t have any better scenes than her first big one in the showdown with Tamiroff.

Welles, as an actor, is flawless. He’s showing off and still giving a great performance. He gets most of the film’s best scenes, but he also gives himself more a character actor role.

The entire supporting cast is outstanding. Welles is clearly thrilled to have them and lets them work; Calleia does an amazing job. Valentin de Vargas and Victor Millan are good in smaller parts. Marlene Dietrich is perfect in her “cameo.”

Touch of Evil is a brilliant film. Welles’s abilities once again survive the studio knife, which is both frustrating and fortunate.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on a novel by Whit Masterson; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Aaron Stell and Virgil W. Vogel; music by Henry Mancini; produced by Albert Zugsmith; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Charlton Heston (Mike Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Police Captain Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Police Sergeant Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi), Mort Mills (Al Schwartz), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Dennis Weaver (Mirador Motel Night Manager), Valentin de Vargas (Pancho), Victor Millan (Manelo Sanchez), Joanna Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Harry Shannon (Chief Gould) and Marlene Dietrich (Tana).


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