How I saw a movie without seeing

The chase in Duel.  Photo courtesy: Universal Television

Remember Jaws? The movie still sends a shiver down my spine. The opening beach sequence is still vivid in my memory. I stepped into Steven Spielberg’s world of movies through this chilling thriller. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark only increased my interest in Spielberg’s craft.
Fear, the fear that gnaws at our bones, was the engine of Spielberg’s early movies. I found it fascinating. So when some friends huddled together one afternoon to discuss movies, my contribution was on Spielberg: how he thrives in portraying the fear of mere mortals, ordinary people struggling to stitch together a life.
“So you haven’t seen Duel,” one of my friends said.
“No, I haven’t heard about it either,” I replied.
“The fear factor you said is brilliantly portrayed in it,” he said, adding that it is a Tom-and-Jerry game without the comical interludes played out on a highway.
Sreekumar was a compulsive story-teller. He doesn’t need an invitation to launch into one of his narrations on books or movies. Duel obviously delighted him. And he was quick to figure out that there was an audience.
For the next hour, Sreekumar turned Spielberg, narrating how a road rage turned into a breathless battle for life. Sreekumar’s narrative skills are admirable. Mimicking the truck’s ear-splitting horn and harping on the details of the sequences at Chuck’s Café, he fleshed out the scenes with his words and actions.
Rapt in attention, we followed every word that tripped off Sreekumar’s lips. His hands would come up when describing the speeding truck looming behind the Plymouth and his body swerved when the vehicles came around the curves at great speed. He brought to life a cat-and-mouse chase gone wrong.
And the finale. It was so beautifully described that when he stopped, there was silence.
“Beautiful,” one of us said.
It sure was. So good that I badly wanted to see it. But I never could, for years. The images from Sreekumar’s narration remained etched in my memory. Almost as if I had seen the movie.

*  *  *

More than 30 years later I watched Duel. I was dumbstruck at the clarity of Sreekumar’s description. I knew what was coming, how the scenes will turn out. But there was more to young Spielberg’s precocious skills. The frames, the juxtaposition of the truck and the car, the subjective shots, the use of spaces in the frames, and the pace were breathtaking.
It was not just a movie about terror on the highway. It is a commentary about lives of ordinary people.
I realised that in his attempt to focus on the businessman car driver’s inability to spot the trucker, Sreekumar left out some crucial elements — parts that threw light on the driver’s frailties.
The truck was, in fact, a trailer. Visually and metaphorically it made a huge difference. The car driver’s telephone conversation with his wife was never narrated, and that held hints on some of his traits. More crucially the fight at the café, it was not emphasised enough to show the car driver’s physical weakness. And his botched school bus rescue was completely missed. They mattered in the end.

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