The Chronological Spielberg: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

twilight zone the movie

I have a few distinct memories of Twilight Zone: The Movie. When I was a kid, I have a very clear memory of watching the beginning of this movie with my dad, who does not like scary movies by the way, and being completely freaked out by that Dan Akyroyd bit in the beginning between him and Albert Brooks. That was well before I got into horror movies myself and I must say it stuck with me.

The other memory is that it’s not very good. My memory didn’t go much further beyond that, but I think it had something to do with the fact that, aside from the initial segment by John Landis, the movie didn’t do too much in the way of newness. But upon watching the full thing again recently in my attempt to go through all of Steven Spielberg’s major film efforts, I didn’t have that same problem.

In fact, the only segment of the film — four parts each directed by Landis, Spielberg, Joe Dante (who I recently realized I’m a huge fan of) and George Miller of Mad Max fame — that I didn’t like is the one by Spielberg which was pretty disappointing.

Called “Kick The Can,” the second part of the film finds The Shining‘s Scatman Crothers playing Mr. Bloom, a recent addition to a nursing home who riles up all the other old folks with talk of youth. That night, they all go out to play and actually become young again. I’m not nearly as familiar with this episode from the original TV series — which I absolutely love watching in marathon mode every New Year’s — but I can’t imagine that one is as schmaltzy and sappy as this one. Spielberg just goes overboard with the cutesy stuff and winds up undercutting his own fairly poignant story about not wanting to lose yourself to age. It’s too bad considering the other filmmakers created much more balanced offerings and Spielberg had just nailed well crafted, earned sentimentality with E.T. the year before.

Since I’m probably not going to circle round back to this movie for a while, I might as well review the other three segments. Landis’ piece about a bigot who winds up surviving violent encounters while looking like the various groups he hates was a really solid piece of craftsmanship unfortunately tainted by the real life tragedy that went on while filming. Still, I thought the whole film should have been more in line with this part which deftly recreated the feel of the old series while telling an all new story.

Dante did a lot with his part, “It’s A Good Life” about a little boy with intense reality warping powers who brings a traveling teacher into his incredibly strange house. He does a great job of slowly revealing what’s going on and also lacing the entire thing with cartoons to not only explain what’s going on without smashing you over the head with it, but then become much more a part of the proceedings as the segment progresses (poor Cousin Ethel). There’s something awesomely grotesque about how the toons look when they come into the real world. Since we’re inundated with cartoons, it makes all the more sense that some of the house’s hallways and rooms look like they’re straight out of Tom and Jerry or one of the Warners cartoons seen in the film. Actually, the set design of this movie reminded me quite a bit of what Dante did once the kid went in the deep, dark pit in The Hole.

This segment is also the one I want more of after it’s over. All four portions feel like complete short stories, but there’s clearly a lot more going on here that could be explored more fully in a longer form story. Plus, damn that kid and the mutant bunny are creep-city. Oh and it’s pretty crazy seeing Nancy Cartwright as Cousin Ethel because you can hear her Bart Simpson voice even back then.

Finally you’ve got Miller’s take on “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” starring John Lithgow in the William Shatner role. Of all three recreated episodes, this is the original I’ve seen the most. This is the one where an airplane passenger is convinced that a gremlin is on the wing of the place tearing it apart. Everyone around him thinks he’s nuts, but, being the Twilight Zone, we know that’s not what’s up. The key to this one is Lithgow’s excellent performance as the flier who starts off already terrified and then skyrockets into anxiety when he starts seeing things that shouldn’t be there. Since he nails it, the whole thing comes off as a more intense journey than you might expect. Of course, it helps that the gremlin looks a lot better than a dude in a carpet suit.

Oddly, as far as anthology films go, I’d give this one a thumb’s up, something I rarely do. Overall the quality’s solid, with great storytelling, acting and direction. As a Spielberg offering, though, it leaves much to be desired. With Twilight Zone out of the way, I’m moving on to Temple Of Doom, which I love, and then a few episodes of Amazing Stories that I believe are on Netflix Instant. After that I’m getting into some pretty new territory with his more dramatic efforts of the 80s and 90s starting with The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun. I’m hoping to stay a bit more up to date on these posts. Looking back I only did two all year, this being the second. Hopefully I can at least get up to Purple by year’s end, but it would probably be foolish to make any promises.

The Chronological Spielberg: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

et I don’t think there’s a person my age who doesn’t have some pretty strong feelings about E.T. I was born the year after this movie came out, so it always existed in my brain. Back in my day movies tended to live on in my mind morso because of regular viewings on cable instead of tape rentals. But, I do have two very distinct memories of watching this movie. The first time, I was pretty young, maybe five or six, possibly seven. It was one of the few childhood Christmases I remember where my aunt, uncle and cousins who lived in Indianapolis all came and stayed at our house. Grandma also came in from Cleveland, so her whole family was in one house. That might have been the Christmas I got my Nintendo, but I know that we all sat down together, dimmed the lights and watched E.T. on VHS. That’s a great memory that still lives on in my mind.

The other important viewing of E.T. came in 2002 when the film was re-released to theaters with some extra scenes and all the guns edited out. I was 18 or 19 at the time and had been dating my future wife since early November of 2001, but since neither of us had a car or much money, we tended to just hang out around campus or maybe go out for some coffee. Eventually we decided that we should probably go out an official date, so we hit up one of the local Mexican places, caught the movie at the local, privately owned movie theater and got coffee at The Mean Bean. It was a wonderful date and I think we both really enjoyed watching the movie again.

Even with those two very fond memories, E.T. isn’t the kind of movie I purposefully revisited on a regular basis. I’d see bits and pieces of it on TV and I bought the DVD release of the 20th Anniversary when it came out, but I don’t believe I’ve seen that movie again since that 2002 viewing. The film lives in my brain in a weird, incomplete space where I have pretty solid memories of E.T. appearing, the frog scene and the bike stuff leading up to the end, but not all the doctor and sciencey stuff. I think it bums me out, so I forget it.

Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the deal with the movie if you’re unfamiliar or don’t remember too much. The film opens with a spaceship landing in the forest. We don’t know why they’re there, but they seem to just be looking around and taking samples. Some folks show up and scare the aliens away, but one of their own gets left behind. That alien, eventually dubbed E.T., finds his way to a house inhabited by Elliot, his older brother Michael, his younger sister Gertie and his recently divorced/separated mother Mary. Elliot and E.T. form a bond as the two become good friends and also form an empathic bond. We soon discover that E.T.’s not doing so great and wants to contact his people, so Elliot, Michael and their friends do what they can to save their new, weird friend.

The beauty of the film is its emotional heart. Every member of Elliot’s family has an emotional center that seems related to the others, but different. Mary loves her children, but also has a broken heart from her husband’s leaving with another woman. Michael is the only one who understands this and wants to protect her. He actually speaks a line that’s kind of the heartstone of the film early on to Elliot when he says something like, “Why don’t you grow up and start thinking of other people for a change,” to Elliot. Gertie does this in a more child-like fashion while Elliot’s entire arc revolves around the idea. That’s really what this film is about: empathy in all forms.

On a quick side note, I just realized something really great about this movie: the older brother isn’t a total jerk. Isn’t that how most of these 80s movies go? There’s always a jerky older brother who gives his brother crap and the two don’t even seen to be related. I don’t have any siblings and I understand that they don’t always get along, but it seems like, especially in movies like these from this time period, that dynamic was never more complicated than “the older brother’s a jerk.” Michael has a lot of depth and it shows in the film. I love the part where he’s so excited to hear about E.T. being okay that he jumps up in excitement and bangs his head on the ceiling. That’s a great bit.

And the movie is jam packed with great bits. I was especially blown away by the first 10 to 15 minutes of this movie which all seemed like a big homage to Spielberg’s previous hits. Of course you start off with a spaceship (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) that leads into the shadowy introduction of the film’s hero (Raiders Of The Lost Ark) and also something of a chase scene where you don’t really get a good look at the pursuers (Jaws). In fact, I didn’t realize this until I was looking through the film’s IMDb Trivia Page, but you don’t really see an adult’s face aside from Mary’s until the scientists show up. And guess who the villains are? Yup, adults. Spielberg might have stumbled upon the idea of keeping the shark hidden in Jaws because of technical difficulties, but he took that idea and used it in his other films.

Speaking of film connections, E.T. is a really interesting companion piece to Close Encounters because of the similarity of content but looked at from different angles. They’re both about people dealing with the reality of aliens but in very different ways. While Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy practically loses his sanity trying to get to the aliens, which doesn’t happen until the end of the film, Elliot finds his right away and goes from there. Another interesting bit of info I came upon while reading the Trivia page is that E.T. started as more of a horror movie where a family is terrorized by alien creatures. He went the nicer route and wound up using the nefarious elements for Poltergeist which he produced for Tobe Hooper to direct, but the two movies kind of work together as different sides of the same coin. Maybe I’ll give that movie another watch and see how they compare while E.T.‘s still in mind.

Aside from that, I’m going to do my best to get to the next Spielberg film in a more timely fashion. I’m going to watch at least Spielberg’s part of The Twilight Zone movie which I don’t always enjoy watching because I’m constantly comparing every frame to the original episodes in my brain. From there it’s on to my personal favorite Indiana Jones movie, Temple Of Doom. After that, I think I’m going to hit up the two episodes of Amazing Stories that he directed (“Ghost Train” and “The Mission”) before moving on to two movies I’ve never seen: The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun. Should be a fun ride!

The Chronological Spielberg: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

Like many children of the 80s, I am a huge fan of the Indiana Jones movies. I actually like them all (yes all) and have a special affinity for Temple of Doom that I’ll get to after making my way through a few more Spielberg movies. As a young kid I didn’t have a ton of movies on VHS and yet I remember seeing the Indy movies as well as the Star Wars trilogy a lot on cable back then. I eventually got the box set form my grandparents while in college but haven’t really watched them a lot since then. Still, I like having my favorite movies in my possession so I can watch them whenever I do feel like it.

A few years ago, my wife and I did watch one of the Indy movies, I can’t remember exactly which one, but I think it was Raiders. Anyway, I was struck by how damn good the movie is. It should haven’t been a surprise, but I wasn’t sure if it was one of those things where the movie basically lived in an awesome space in my brain because I saw when I was young. I was glad to find that it really is an expertly put together film that not only pays homage to old adventure films, but also reinvented the genre using Spielberg’s ridiculous knowledge of film and film making.

Take the introduction of Indiana Jones for instance. We keep getting glances of him in bits and pieces, but never the full look until we’re granted something epic showing how cool and brave he is. But, the point of the film isn’t to show a perfect hero, so we see him get screwed over a few times and then in his school environment where, even though he’s handsome and the ladies love him, he’s still kind of awkward. This is not his true environment and it shows. And of course, not long after this he gets ANOTHER awesome reveal when he shows up at Marion’s bar as a gigantic, looming, context-filled shadow. Boom.

Which brings me to another wonderful aspect of this movie: Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. She’s brave and powerful and vulnerable and resourceful and can drink like a damn champion, all qualities that don’t just appeal to me but make her incredibly human and real. She’s not one of these one-not female characters who either plays the damsel or needs no man to help her, she’s a rounded, full character, one that I’m drawn to. I was really excited when I found out she was involved in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and enjoy how that story ended up.

I also want to talk about something I almost never do when writing about movies: sound effects. I realized while watching this movie again that the effects for certain things in this movie are ingrained in my thinking. When I think of someone punching someone, I think of Indy punching a guy. Of course, the crack of the whip is in there too, but so is the sound of that propeller plane. That’s a pretty incredible impact the more I think about it.

All of this is even more impressive when you think about how uneven and mark-missing 1941 was (at least in my opinion). While I barely cared about anyone in that film, I don’t think there was a character in this movie that I didn’t love or hate or feel something in between for. This is the Spielberg who made the incredible Close Encounters and Jaws, this is a Spielberg who understands his strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to create a hero that has proven to stand the test of time, something most people dream of. I wonder how much of that came from screenwriters George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan and how much was Spielberg, but regardless of the breakdown, it shows wonderfully on screen.

For what it’s worth Lucy seemed to get pretty caught up in the story as well, so that’s something.

The Chronological Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

Is it possible to have too much talent involved in a film? If there was ever an argument for that theory presented in theaters, I think it might be 1941. This flick was directed by Steven Spielberg directly after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who would write a little film called Back to the Future six years after this was released. It stars an A-list crop of comedic and dramatic actors from Slim Pickens and John Belushi to Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune. Even with all that going for it, 1941 is simply not a good movie. I wish I could explain simply why that is, but the closest thing I can come up with is that the script is too unfocused, the film is too long and maybe Spielberg was trying to fit his square peg into a more John Landis-shaped hole.

I didn’t know all of the above when I went into this film, so I was definitely surprised by the huge amount of silly, slapsticky humor that kicks this film off, including a nude woman swimming in the ocean to the Jaws theme music who happens to be swimming under a Japanese sub. The idea here is that it’s right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and everyone’s freaked out. The film takes place in California where they’re specifically freaked out about another attack like the one in Hawaii. This acts as the backdrop for a huge number of gags, storylines and sources of conflict.

The problem is that I don’t care. When the film’s supposed hero is presented as a goober bus boy who just wants to dance with a girl in a contest and then we’re shown a military group that’s made up of mostly boring or jerky people. Worse yet? That group is made up of Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Treat Williams and they’re somewhat wasted.

Or are they? Honestly, it was hard for me to focus on this movie because its subject matter was treated in such a goofy manner that I just didn’t care. Apparently a huge anti-sub gun really was placed in a person’s yard in real life, but the way its handled in this movie with its cartoony nature, it’s just another piece of an overly complex movie.

The funny thing is that I think someone like Landis could have done a lot better with this film. Maybe Spielberg didn’t know who or what to cut. Maybe Landis would have utilized his talent a little better (from what I remember, Candy does little to nothing but mug in the movie). I definitely think he would have kept the film significantly shorter. Many people believe comedy should be kept around the 90 minute mark, especially zany ones because its easier for an audience to suspend their disbelief over a shorter period of time. I tend to agree with that and if this film had been less cartoony and had more of an actual emotional center, as well as had been roughly 60-90 minutes shorter, it could have been a much better film.

The Chronological Spielberg: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

Another reason I got behind on my viewing of Steven Spielberg’s movies, aside from being so familiar with Jaws, was that I’d seen Close Encounters twice in recent memory, once for the first time all the way through when I rented it from Netflix and again on TV while visiting the inlaws a few months back. Still, I loved the movie, so when I decided to do this project I looked around for a DVD copy and found out there’s a multiple disc pack that includes the theatrical release, a director’s cut and a special edition each of which are different. The only other set I have like this is for my beloved Dawn of the Dead. I honestly can’t remember the differences in that set and haven’t really dug into this one yet, but will let you know when I do. For the purposes of this post, I simply watched the original theatrical version.

I’m realizing after watching Spielberg’s initial offerings that he succeeds the most when working with a story that hadn’t been done before that has an epic quality to it that’s treated as such. Duel‘s murderous truck is scary and familiar, but more from real life than film; no one had seen a shark like the one in Jaws; the aliens in Close Encounters aren’t necessarily scary themselves, but what they do to people is. Meanwhile, Sugarland Express and 1941 (which I’ll review shortly) lack that epicness and newness.

What makes Close Encounters so epic? Well, just about everything. Richard Dreyfuss heads out to help during a black out unknowingly caused by visiting aliens only to find himself directly in their path. After that, he becomes increasingly obsessed with a mountainous shape he can’t quite fully remember that will not leave him alone. It gets so bad that his family leave him and he winds up driving towards an area that’s said to be the center of a chemical spill. He eventually finds a place where a group of scientists have set up a lab to communicate with the aliens by way of musical tones. We also follow a few of those scientists who discover some WWII planes that look brand new and eventually come to understand that they’re dealing with aliens and a woman whose son gets abducted himself who joins forces with Dreyfuss.

As if I already wasn’t from Jaws, this movie made me an even bigger Richard Dreyfuss fan. The subtle ways he plays his character in this film are just amazing. He takes zoning out and growing obsession to a new level without ever going over the top or getting too scary. That’s not to say that his wife and kids don’t get scared. There’s actually a great balance between the kids freaking out because he’s acting weird (the mashed potato dinner scene) and them getting excited about dad’s weirdness (throwing dirt in the house). This might seem like uneven characterization, but I think it’s a wonderful use of children and how they see the world. They want dad to be the dad and take care of them, but there’s something cool about him acting like a big kid and trashing the house in such a strange way.

Another aspect of the film I fell in love with was Spielberg’s treatment of the aliens from a director and storytelling perspective as well as within the logic of the story. Instead of having a group of military dudes waiting with guns drawn to “talk” to the aliens like in just about every other movie with extra terrestrials (including ET now that I think about it), it’s a group of scientists there trying to make contact. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate seeing awe and excitement on the faces of the crowds instead of grim determination or fear. Heck, even the people who were on the ship don’t seem harmed, just a little confused. Great stuff.

This might be a little random, but I also liked how real the houses and settings felt. I’m particularly partial to authentic looking scenes set inside the bedrooms of children and I think that was nailed in the beginning of this movie. I even liked seeing the McDonlads a little later in the film. I know some people consider these instances of product placement annoying or cheap, but that’s real life. I had some of the toys in that room and I absolutely went to McDs that looked exactly like that. It’s an easy way to bring me into a film and I have no problem when directors use it.

I really don’t have a single complaint about the film. Everyone played their parts perfectly and worked together to create a movie that perfectly balances how this kind of invasion changes a particular person while also showing the larger process of how the government deals with it. That scene with the military guy and his crew trying to figure out what kind of story to sell the American people to get them away from the landing zone is quick and spot on. The flick also looks just fantastic. Every time I watch a Spielberg movie from the 70s I can’t help but think how crappy a lot of the CGI looks these days. People need to step up their game.

The Chronological Spielberg: Jaws (1975)

Jaws is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an amazing combination of real world drama and horror with so many amazing comedic and dramatic moments mixed in. I truly love this movie. So, why did it take me almost six months to watch after checking out Spielberg’s first two movies Duel and The Sugarland Express? No, it’s not because I didn’t particularly like Sugarland, but more so because I wasn’t as excited about watching a movie I’d seen before. I’ve talked about this here and there on the blog, but since graduating high school I’ve been really enjoying watching new things instead of rewatched movies I love. This actually worked in my favor as I sat down to watch Jaws today because it had been a while since I watched it (I’m shocked I’ve never blogged about it before, actually, but then again I’ve never blogged about The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs or Lost Highway either and those were wildly influential on me).

Everyone knows the plot of Jaws, right? A great white shark starts terrorizing a New England island community in the summer. This presents a problem because the greedy mayor doesn’t want Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) to shut down the beaches for fear of losing tourist money. After more and more attacks, Brody teams up with out of town shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and off kilter local shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to go out on Quint’s boat and kill the fish.

What makes Jaws such a great flick is that, in addition to having some truly scary moments (the underwater head in the boat still creeps me out on the same level that Michael Myers sitting up does at the end of Halloween), there are so many great moments with humor and emotion. That bit where Brody’s wife looks at the shark book and yells at her kids to get out of the water is fantastic as is the wonderful scar-comparison scene on the boat. Chills, you guys, chills.

Even better? The film itself has an equally epic behind the scenes story. It took forever to get some of the shots and the studio was freaking out. The mechanical shark — Bruce — didn’t work well which is one of the reasons you only see the shark briefly in the film. This bit might not have been in the script, but it certainly made the film more dramatic. After seeing just bits and pieces, can you get a better reveal than the “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” one? I think not. And this goes to show that Spielberg’s not just a great technical director (as seen in Duel), but has also had great instinctual storytelling instincts.

I really can’t say enough good things about this movie, but I think I’ll just stop here. Gallons of ink both real and digital have been spilled about the movie. If you’ve never seen it, do so immediately. You will absolutely not be disappointed. And if you are? Well, I probably don’t want to talk to you.

The Chronological Spielberg: The Sugarland Express (1974)

Sugarland Express is the one early Steve Spielberg movie you don’t hear much about. Duel is a taught, impressive debut while Jaws might be one of the best things ever committed to film and then you’ve got Close Encounters, but how come no one talks about how great Sugarland Express? Well, because it’s not that good. There are good, even great, moments to be found in the film, but overall I found it to be a long, unrealistic and worst of all tonally uneven film.

Here’s the story. Goldie Hawn’s husband William Atherton is in a jail for people who are about to get out of jail. It’s a pretty relaxed looking favility, which is proven when Hawn breaks him out by giving him some clothes and sunglasses. See, their son got taken away from her and she wants to get him back. Atherton only has four months left before getting out, but apparently the kid is going to get moved before then. So, she needs him out now and he goes. They get a ride away from the jail thanks to a fellow inmate’s parents, but the old man drives so slowly that he winds up attracting the attention of a cop played by Michael Sacks. After a chase scene, the couple wind up kidnapping the officer which leads into a chase with the cops to try and get him back. But it’s not a very fast chase, even if it does seem to occupy every single cop in the south (cars literally wrap around bends at times in this film). The goal is to get the kid, but with the cops on their trails, it’s hard to assume they’ll succeed even if this is based on a true story.

I think watching this movie first would be a better choice for someone looking to explore Spielberg’s movies. It’s a lot more by the book than Duel. It also feel less tonally consistent with its elements ranging from child endangerment and snipers to ridiculously long car chases and incredibly stupid lead characters. Duel might have felt like it was inspired by Hitchcock, but Sugarland feels like Cool Hand Luke mixed with Blues Brothers two movies that are great on their own, but apparently don’t synthesize well.

There are a few other elements working against the movie for me as a viewer, some of which are my fault, some are reactions to choices by Spielberg and the writers. I’ll give up my own problems first. One, I do not like Goldie Hawn. The only thing I’ve ever seen her in that I liked was Death Becomes Her and I was a kid. There’s just something about her as a person that bothers me. Add to that the fact that her character, while having legitimate reasons for what she’s doing, is simply a dummy and you’ve got a recipe for me not caring. Even if you think the breakout makes sense (which I don’t) you then have to forgive her for ruining her own plan, freaking out, stealing a car and kidnapping a cop. That was all her. Had she just chilled out, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I know she sees a time table for getting her boy back and all that, but every decision she makes seems stupid and ill thought out. At times, watching her is like watching an episode of MTV’s Teen Mom. I also personally don’t know enough about the 70s era prison systems or police work, but the escape seemed way too easy and the chase ridiculous. If these were normal procedures, that’s on me, but if not?

Well, that gets us into my problems with the story. Like I said, the escape seemed ridiculous, though I guess I can buy it. Different time, less security. But, my real problem is how the police cavalcade is handled. It’s like a much more civilized  version of the end of Blues Brothers, but spread out over an entire movie. My biggest problem, though, is that I never once believe that these people can succeed in their mission. No logical person believes that these two idiots are going to have a happy ending. How could they? It’s impossible. They are going to get caught, so no matter how many deals are made or attempts on their life foiled, the end is always going to be the same. If this were a straight up comedy in tone, it would make sense, but the mix is just nuts. You’ll have a heartbreaking moment of a little boy crying for his mother followed by that ridiculous string of cars behind our supposed heroes. Those elements don’t quite fit together and thus put me off balance as a viewer.

There are good moments of course. Spielberg is the master of getting cool shots that you almost don’t even notice. One of my favorites was pretty simple, but towards the beginning when the cops are getting called to action, there’s a shot of two cars pulling away from a diner. The camera is situated between them and the both pull out right past the camera at the same time. I don’t know why, but that one struck me as cool. There’s also a pretty gnarly shoot out at a used car lot and a stunt where a van gets driven off the road where a guy looks like he actually flips into a pond and then the van lands on him! These scenes both looked great. And that end shot is beautiful.

I also have to say that, with a few changes in casting, editing and presentation of the story, this could have been a great movie. William Atherton is great, so is Sacks. The relationship between these three characters is pretty great, even with me not liking Hawn. Oh, and you can’t forget Ben Johnson as the captain. He has some great unspoken moments and almost seems like he’s in a different movie, a much more serious one. The ending feels like it’s from a different movie too because of how serious things get. In the parlance of today, shit gets real real fast. But, like a lot of other parts in the movie, the ending doesn’t match up with the other parts and the whole thing feels off balance and long.

I actually feel bad dumping on this movie as much as I am because of how much I liked Duel, but I think that’s why I was disappointed with this one. Duel is amazing, a great piece of filmmaking made all the more impressive considering the time constraints, that it was made for TV and Spielberg was so young and inexperienced when he made it. This one doesn’t feel nearly as impressive no matter how many smaller moments or shots appeal to me. Even the very end makes me feel bad about not liking this movie because the last scene is so perfectly shot.

Speaking of Duel and Spielberg’s other movies, I noticed a pair of interesting themes in these flicks that I’m sure are more coincidental than anything. First off, during a chase scene there’s a train that inhibits the forward motion of the hero. In Duel this scene is super suspenseful as the truck is trying to push the car into the moving train. This time, Goldie just has to swerve out of the way. Could this be a commentary on how transportation situated on tracks get in the way of our personal freedom and movement or just a thing that happens to people? There are also a pair of old people in both films who can’t be labeled as bad guys, but definitely aren’t as helpful or good as they could have been. In Duel it’s the old people who run afoul of the truck while Mann is asking them for help, in Express it’s a pair of old timers who do give our heroes a ride, but do it in such a manner that they wind up getting pulled over by the cops. This might be a commentary on the elderly’s inability to get out of the way of youth.

At the end of the day, I’m really not sure if I’m more disappointed by the film or unsatisfied with it. I think the two go hand in hand, but my expectations were raised so much by Duel and his next picture, Jaws, that I expected Sugarland Express to be up there with those. To be fair, it is a different kind of movie and I can appreciate a director trying to do new things, but the off kilter tone doesn’t do this film any favors.

The Chronological Spielberg: Duel (1971)

Around the new year, I was seeing a lot of Steven Spielberg in interviews and on TV. Considering he had two movies coming out–Adventures Of TinTin and War Horse–it makes sense. But, it got me thinking about how many of his movies I’d scene. Of course there are the obvious ones like Jaws, ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark that I know I’ve seen. After checking out his IMDb page, though, I realized I had seen about 50% of his movies. That didn’t seem right considering he’s not only one of the best, but most prolific and diverse directors around. I decided then that I would start at the beginning and watch all of his movies from Duel on to War Horse (when it comes out on DVD). I’ve got some of them in my private collection, a few are on Netflix Instant, but everything else is on regular Netflix, so I’ll be good to go.

On paper, Duel should be a ridiculously slow and boring movie. It’s about a tanker truck that torments a man because he passed him. Their cat and mouse game leads them across some desert territory and one of them triumphs. Those are the basics I knew going into the movie (as well as a fairly good idea about the ending which I saw on one of those “Scariest Movies Ever” TV specials back in college). I mean, how scary can a truck be, right?

Pretty friggin’ scary, you guys. There are two very simple elements that make this a movie that doesn’t only not drag but also sucks you in like nothing else I’ve seen and that’s the script by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend the novel and several Twilight Zone episodes including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) and the nascent genius of Spielberg who had directed a few hours of television up to this point as well as some shorts and student films, but nothing this long (it was originally a TV movie that had some scenes added and was theatrically released across the pond).

So, while much of the tension was already ingrained in the script by one of the best writers around, Spielberg made a number of choices that really added to it. There’s a featurette on the DVD where he talks about a lot of the things he did, some of which I noticed while watching and some I didn’t. First off, the truck is legitimately scary looking. It’s big and huge and dirty and gross and dangerous looking. He chose that particular truck because it’s cab stuck out like a face instead of being flat. He also had the crew apply dirty and grease every day to make it look worse and even put dead bugs in the grill. He also did some amazing things with cameras, getting angles that really put you into the movie. Some are mounted on the corners of the car while others seem like their right there next to the wheel. In the featurette he explained that he mapped out the entire movie so he’d always know where he was–the whole thing was shot in 12 or 13 days, he couldn’t remember) and that he would use multiple cameras, a car designed specifically for chase/auto scenes and all kinds of lenses to make things look faster and more dangerous than they are. I had heard that he was a kind of a geek when it comes to the tech side of filmmaking, but hearing him talk about it, he really knows his stuff and more impressively, knew it back then when he was 25 years old!

But, it should also be added that Dennis Weaver who plays the main character–David Mann–absolutely kills it. The movie is about a man being pushed to the edge by ridiculously dangerous circumstances and SPOILER overcoming them. Weaver does an excellent job of keeping his character in check and unleashing the rage and fear that comes from this kind of situation, especially towards the end.

You might notice that I labeled this as not only a horror movie, but also gave it the Slasher and Monster tags. While I don’t think anyone could argue against the idea that Duel is a psychological horror film, I think the arguments for the others could be equally made. The truck (or the driver who we never see) is like a slasher in that it is always exactly where it needs to be to give Mann trouble. It stalks him like a slasher–or a monster–at all turns, attacking when it needs to, even going so far as to make it’s evil presence known to other people. At the same time, it’s a big, hulking, ugly monster that wants nothing more than to kill Mann. Why? Because he passed the truck. Or maybe it’s a random selection along the lines of The Strangers (Why us? Because you were home. Why me? Because you were on the road.). Spielberg says in one of the featurettes that the license plates that adorn the front bumper of the truck represent previous victims, something I hadn’t noticed or thought about. In my head, this dude just snapped today, but I like that just well.

In a lot of ways, Duel is, as other people have described it before me, Jaws with automobiles. That’s true to an extent, but it also feels limited to me. This movie is very Hitchcockian, something that Spielberg say in the short story itself, but also something reflected in the score–which is more noise than music. There are definitely times where it sounds like the shrill violins from Psycho make an appearance, though they seem even more primal. In addition to Hitchcock references, there are also ones that Spielberg would go back to. I didn’t catch these, but he mentioned them. The old woman who runs the gas station/snake farm plays a gas station attendant in 1941 (which I haven’t seen) while the old folks who stop and don’t give Mann much help towards the end are on the helicopter in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But that’s not all, he also used the same exact dinosaur sound that he used as the SPOILER truck exploded at the end when the shark gets blown up in Jaws. He explained that he’s both sentimental and grateful, like these little nods are way to say thank you to Duel for spawning his career. Which it did. This movie got him Sugarland Express which lead right into Jaws.

I have to say, I was shocked at how much I liked this movie. If you’re a Spielberg fan, you want it to be awesome, but like I said above, you don’t know about a movie that features a truck as a bad guy. I figured it might be like going back and getting the first indie record of that band you really like and realizing it’s alright, hints at greatness, but doesn’t really life up to the classic ones. In this case, though, he started his feature career at the top of his game. To be able to make such a taught, absorbing TV movie that still holds up 41 years later, is nothing short of amazing. If you haven’t seen it, absolutely, positively go out and get a copy of Duel. I’d also recommend checking out the extras that include a few interviews with Spielberg as well as one with Matheson. Awesome stuff.