Thursday, September 12, 2013

Film Pairings — A Different Kind Of On The Road: Duel And Joy Ride

Make sure the edge of your seat is comfortable because that’s where you’ll spend most of your time during this double feature. 

I saw both these films years ago.  Both by accident.  With Duel, I was home alone bored, probably flipping pages in a magazine.   The TV set was on.  I glanced at the screen from time to time. Whatever was on didn’t appear to be that exciting, yet there was something about it that kept drawing me back.  The movie was about this ordinary guy, a traveling salesman driving his ordinary Plymouth to an appointment. And we’re along for what appears to be a boring, ordinary ride. This ordinary guy, Dennis Weaver, inadvertently pisses off a truck, driver. In that moment, though it takes our ordinary salesman a moment or two to realize it, there is no ordinary anymore.  And WE are along for a ride through hell.  Initially made for TV in 1971, with a less than half-million-dollar budget, this was Steven Spielberg’s first full-length movie and the one that gave him keys to the cinema kingdom. Weaver is great as a kind of everyman caught in an inescapable contest that he is in no way qualified to compete.  Equal credit goes to his co-star, a 1955 Peterbilt Tanker, an evil, smoke-spewing monster of a truck that should have an Emmy on its dash.

One evening a few years later, facing the fact that the movie I intended to see was sold out, I opted to buy tickets to Joy Ride.  The movie poster suggested I was about to sit through a cheesy thriller.  Why not? Sometimes cheesy movies are satisfying.  Joy Ride was, however, more than a little familiar — there is this mad trucker on a rampage. Director John Dahl (Red Rock West and The Last Seduction) readily admits his 2001 film owes a lot to Duel.  Despite the similarities — the devil truck here is also a Peterbilt, for example — Joy Ride is not a remake.  It stands on its own.

Instead of the relatively blameless every-day Joe getting caught up in a maniac’s derangement, two young smart asses tease a ‘redneck’ truck driver. Either the trucker doesn’t have a sense of humor or it is very, very dry.  Paul Walker, Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski are college-age humans who know not what evil awaits them when a hardened, repressed and rage-filled truck driver wants revenge for a frat-boy level prank.

What both films do is take what should be a preposterous situation, make it believable and scarier than hell. The difference is that in Duel Weaver didn’t really cause the sky to fall on his head. What happened to him could happen to any of us.  In Joy Ride, the message is don’t poke the beehive and for God’s sake, don’t poke it twice.

I hate to suggest beer again as an accompaniment to film night, but we’re talking truck drivers, diners and motels.  So, maybe a trip down Memory Lane and a couple of CC & Sevens.


Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp said...

I first read Duel in Playboy magazine, and then sort of by accident, saw the movie. Each was incredibly tense. Spielberg did a terrific job of creating the fear a driver would feel when menaced by a big rig.

Ronald Tierney said...

I also read that he had only 12 days to make the film. The screenplay was pretty close to the short story.