Continuing my new tradition of watching old(ish) movies during the weekend, I sat down for a little ’70s style suspense, and some ’80s style superhero antics. Which one did I enjoy more? Read on, and it won’t be too hard to figure out.
- No, I’m not talking about the new ABC game show. I’m referring to the 1971 made-for-tv, Steven Spielberg directed thriller starring Dennis Weaver. I have seen this movie several times, and it never gets old. Particularly for a tv movie, it is very well done.
- The premise is very simple: David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a traveling businessman who is riding along the remote highways of mountainous Northern California in his little red Plymouth, when he makes one innocent mistake. He passes one big truck, which unfortunately is driven by one crazy trucker. This sets off a chain of events that grows increasingly unnerving, for both David and the audience.
- Dennis Weaver does a great job of showing how a real person (as opposed to Rambo or Indiana Jones) might react to such a situation. He goes from annoyed, to angry, to incredulous, to terrified, and continues on this emotional ferris wheel until the grand finale.
- In addition to Weaver’s performance, there are a couple of other things that make this movie a classic. One is the constant tension. You feel like you are riding along with David on the dusty highways, creeping up the mountain passes and flying out of control back down, all while trying to allude the scary monster on wheels. That leads to the second factor: the truck. Because you never really see the driver’s face, it’s almost like the truck has a life of its own. And it’s one intimidating big rig!
- Aside from the entertaining action and suspense, watching the movie 30+ years after its release makes it a funny 1970s period piece. Just to name a few of the now defunct cultural markers:
- David’s car only has AM radio
- He has the windows down because the car doesn’t have A/C
- The gas stations are full service, rather than self service. I think the last of the full service gas stations died out in the mid-90s, when pay at the pump became the norm.
- At the cafe where he eats lunch, the water glass is tiny! This was before Americans’ portion sizes were enormous.
- David has to use a pay phone to call his wife, as well as the police. If there had been cell phones in the ’70s, there wouldn’t have been a movie to make. Oh wait, his cell phone would have been out of service or out of battery. But anyway, his situation seemed more dire in the pre cell phone era.
- For its time, Duel was like a modern spin on the western – two men in the wild west, dueling it out from their motor vehicles instead of their horses. To reinforce this theme, at some of the most intense moments in the movie, high tempo country music plays on the radio. This is a movie well worth viewing for anyone who likes action and old school suspense, and who can tolerate the 70s clothing, cars, and conversation.
- This movie was released in 1983, and it was quite a departure from the previous two Man of Steel films. Not in a good way. The opening scene is about as ridiculous as they come – phone booths fall like dominoes, a blind man stumbles into the street, toy penguins trip a woman on skates, and one poor man gets hit by various objects, including a pie in the face. What does any of this have to do with Superman? I have no idea. It doesn’t get much better from there. I only enjoyed the movie at all because it made me nostalgic about my childhood. It’s clear, though, that I had no clue what the plot was when I was five years old.
- Unlike Duel, whose 1970s cultural references added to its appeal, Superman III does not stand up well to the test of time. Maybe 25 years is in the too recent past to appreciate it, or maybe the movie was just done poorly. The main problem: computers. In 1983 the general public didn’t know much about them, particularly when it came to using computers for power and control. Now that we do understand how computers and networks work, and what kinds of things won’t work, it’s hard to watch Richard Pryor’s character, Gus, a supposed computer genius, push a few buttons to manipulate the world’s weather, re-route all the oil tankers, and create kryptonite. Even sillier, when the villains launch a computer-controlled missile system at Superman, the radar screen appears like a video game, with the bad guys aiming their weapons at a cartoon Superman. Guess that’s the only way the writers thought the audience could understand what was happening?
- Despite the campy, ridiculous plot, there are a few disturbing scenes in the movie. The subplot involving Superman and Clark to split into evil Superman and powerless Clark, leads to a violent standoff in a junk yard. Evil Superman attempts to crush Clark in some creative ways, but as a child they were also scary ways. And, the transformation of the main villain’s uptight sister into a robot assassin (as a result of the super computer developing a mind of its own, of course) should have made my list of Disturbing Cinematic Images. Even watching it as an adult, there was something creepy about the scene:
- Watching any of the Superman movies now, it is very sad knowing what happened to Christopher Reeve, so young and strong in these movies, a decade later, with the equestrian accident that paralyzed him and led to his premature death.
- The first Superman movie was truly a classic. I also enjoyed the second one. This one has its place in history as a silly but tolerable addition to the series. One that should never have been made is Superman IV. We’ll pretend that it didn’t happen.