Man Versus Motorway

DUEL, directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott. Distributed by Cinema International for Universal Pictures.

In many ways Duel is like a 20th Century version of Alfred Hitchcock. More modern than the master but just as exciting. As the master of suspense/thrillers Hitchcock has always focussed his attention on one thing in particular. The weakest point of his subject’s survival pattern. Often it’s an object that becomes an obsession which finally destroys the person.

Hitchcock is ageing and his movies are not as gripping as they were. His style has changed little since he ran up the first British talkie a few years back. His old-fashioned approach to settings is most typified by his frequent use of quite obviously painted back-drops instead of a location.

So it is good that Universal’s television output – which hams British screens with rubbish much of the time – has given Steven Spielberg a chance to get into making feature movies.

Spielberg is 25 (or he was in September) and Duel was never meant to be shown in cinemas. It was made as a television movie. Spielberg starts work on his first scheduled feature (starring Goldie Hawn) from his own story in January.

Like most directors from television (Arthur Penn, Don Siegel et al) Spielberg uses the locations he chooses for all they’re worth, and once again like most telly-directors, he makes Duel as a sparing and taut piece of moviemaking.

Duel is the story of a salesman who finds his freeway lane blocked by a juggernaut petrol tanker, he overtakes it and, from there on out, it’s a battle between the man (Dennis Weaver) and the tanker. When he stops off at a petrol station he starts again to find the tanker – which also stopped for fuel – coming up behind him at an amazing speed. As soon as it overtakes him it slows to a crawl.

The battle is between the salesman and the tanker, for we never see its driver clearly. It takes place on a wide fast road, and the service stations and cafeterias along it. In short it’s man versus the motorcar with a vengeance.

It is probably the best thriller I’ve seen since Psycho, but then I don’t usually go to thrillers. For the first half-hour I was thinking Duel’s television techniques couldn’t hold my attention. Then gradually I got so involved I couldn’t leave the cinema even to go to the lavatory.

As this is touring with Asylum, my advice is go’n’see’em. They’ll have you on the edge of your seat, it’s the best double-bill for years.

Magnificent Fistful

A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE, directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Rod Steiger, James Coburn. Music by Ennio Morricone. Released by United Artists.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE, directed by George McCowan. Starring Lee van Cleef. Music Elmer Bernstein. A Mirisch Production distributed by United Artists.

From the late thirties to the early sixties, a small wizened American with a black patch over one eye and a rather odd preference for Big John Wayne, made countless loud, patriotic, (US Cavalry stiff upper lip) Westerns. They were I suppose, always exciting and there was the occasional masterpiece like ‘Stagecoach’. Nevertheless, his reputation as a ‘living legend’ has largely been created by some rather pseudy queens who run the National Film Theatre, and the film programmes on BBC2, who are now running a season of his films on Sunday nights, so you can see for yourselves can’t you? Basically the old style Westerns were sweet; they upheld what are now Mr Nixon’s values.

The modern Western is essentially (that is if it is any good) sour, cynical, bloody, funny, realistic, escapist; and one of the best exponents, directorially speaking, is Sergio Leone.

In fact he’s a kind of latterday John Ford. His films are ponderous, rich in ideas, yet entertaining, atmospheric and exciting. His latest, A Fistful Of Dynamite, originally and more aptly titled ‘Duck, You Suckers’, is divided into two segments. It is 1913, and in hot dry Mexico a peasant who has become a bandit, because he is a fundamental revolutionary, not an intellectual revolutionary, relieves his abject poverty by robbing those who have wealth; he doesn’t care for, or understand, demonstrations or violently exchanging one ideological political junta for another. After various amusing incidents he comes together with a dynamite expert who is wanted by the British for his IRA activities. I think I and Leone as he shows in the film love the IRA because its members, unusually, are both thinkers and activists. Through a series of amusing incidents they plan a series of bank robberies. While travelling to Mesa Verde where they are planning to rob the National Bank, John Mallory (James Coburn) is saved from being arrested by one of the leaders of the Mexican revolution, who then persuades him and his partner, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) to rob the bank, while he tries to divert the attention of the anti-revolutionary troops who are covering the town. The bank vaults turn out to be full of political prisoners rather than gold bars; they set them free and suddenly find themselves heroes of the revolution, most unwillingly on the part of Juan, who simply realises it is money, not a new dictatorship that will help his people.

From here onwards the film loses its flippancy and becomes a stern, suspenseful saga on the bloody reality and conflict of revolution. Steiger’s performance as the man who the revolution is supposedly about, but who can’t relate to what the revolutionaries are doing, is masterful, and the ability of the film as a whole to fuse such disparate elements as amusing action scenes with pieces of dynamite, and the philosophy of revolution, makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience.

The Magnificent Seven Ride

features that ageing spaghetti cowboy, Lee van Cleef in his first starring role in an American Western. Dear old Lee! He just can’t act. Thats fine in low budget Italian westerns where half the fun lies in the bad acting, and anyway there’s a wailing pouf of a screaming director who just can’t fail to contort your face into some kind of expression. But I’m afraid our hero back in his homeland where everyone is faced with the choice of either just dead pan or grimace finds himself rather out of depth in this cheaply, hurriedly made Seven film, which just doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, except in a monetary sense. After the brilliance and success of earlier Seven films the money grabbing distributors, realised that they could serve up the gullible cinema-going public with just about anything with ‘Magnificent Seven’ in the title and they’d go and see it.

Everything in the film is kind of watery and insipid, from the rather unoriginal story which deals with a group of seven men who set out to track and kill a Mexican gang, seventy strong, and naturally succeed, after they’ve kidnapped the marshall’s wife. Everything that made Leone’s film brilliant is lacking here and the flat fifties style direction, and the drab, cliche ridden script seems to have been ripped off from every bad western ever made. The whole thing’s probably making Audie Murphy turn in his grave.

Oh, Oh Susanah

IMAGES, directed by Robert Altman. Starring Susanah York. Released by Hemdale

IMAGES is a wow, a really good movie. Its main theme (in spite of what some bad advertising says) is madness. This subject is normally looked at in the cinema from the viewpoint of the sane, observing the actions of the insane, and rarely therefore, does it ever seem very real. We never get told what it is like to be mad.

Images is the second movie I’ve seen giving a view of the world from inside the mind of someone slipping into complete insanity. The other film was Polanski’s cruder attempt in ‘Repulsion’. There are a few superficial similarities, sexual fantasy and sinister telephone calls, violence real or imagined and a wealth of domestic detail.

Images is more subtle (less of a horror flic) infinitely more credible but still visually and emotionally shocking.

The central figure is Kathryn (beautifully underplayed by Susanah York) a dreamy looking creature, whose voice we hear in the background endlessly composing a fantasy story. Most of the action takes place when she and her husband, who provides the comic relief, come down to their country house for a stay. Too little of the countryside is shown, but enough to suggest the primitive aspect and isolation of the area, it’s not Cotswold’s coach trip country.

Kathryn begins to see things and people that aren’t there, ie her husband reaching to embrace her turns into someone else, a randy neighbour turns into her husband, and a camera into an old lover.

The most frightening part of the fantasy is rather like the Doppleganger legend, walking down a road on a hazy day you see someone in the distance approaching, as he or she comes nearer you realise it’s yourself. Then, the legend has it, you die.

Kathryn does not die, but certainly comes face to face with herself on a few frightening occasions in the movie. The film is often confusing, the difference between reality and fantasy becomes less marked. We are forced to change our minds again and again about whether or not some things (the stabbing of her neighbour) did or didn’t happen.

In spite of some flaws, it’s a beautifully made, very personal film and needs to be seen more than once, I feel. Otherwise one might share to a greater or lesser degree the feeling of a lady in front of me who said, as we got up to leave, “What happened?”