“You can’t beat me on the grade! You can’t beat me on the grade!”
The Scoop: 1971 PG, Directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Dennis Weaver, Eddie Firestone and Gene Dynarski
Tagline: Fear is the driving force
Summary Capsule: White-collar Californian suburbanite in a Plymouth Valiant learns a lesson in driving very defensively from a Peterbilt from Hell.
Shalen’s rating: Five out of five reasons to always check your radiator hoses.
Shalen’s review: Over time I’ve heard quite a bit about this movie. There are visual references to it in a lot of other films’ car chases and stunts,* and of course film reviewers with far better credentials than those of your humble author love dropping names, so other reviews reference it extensively as well. So it was with a great deal of curiosity and some fairly high expectations that I sat down on a large cushion in a small basement to watch it on DVD this afternoon.
I was not disappointed.
The story is very simple. David Mann, typical white-collar worker in a short, fat power tie and a very typical ’70s ‘stache,** is on his way to an appointment. Why he made an appointment out in the wilds of Southern California’s barren desert is not clear, but we’ll pass that. He cuts off a flammables tanker truck he feels is driving too slowly. The trucker passes him and refuses to let him pass again, swerving to and fro across the lanes. He eventually manages to speed past, only to re-encounter that same grimy monolith over and over ways that proceed from annoying through nearly lethal. Almost the entire film occurs on the highway, with brief and breathless stops in between.
Steven Spielberg supposedly was a relative unknown when he directed this made-for-television film. There are hallmarks of what would become a distinctive style later on, although thankfully more relevant to the Jaws than the A.I. period of his career. The camera work is distinctive. There are almost no middle-distance shots while driving is going on. We’re either right up in the protagonist’s face, trapped inside the car with him, or pulled back so far that the red Plymouth Valiant seems tiny and insignificant against the desert landscape. The big rig is often filmed from road level, making its mouthlike grill seem even more terrifyingly enormous than it is already.
There are some very nice uses of soundtrack, although this is most notable when there is no music at all. More often we hear the various mechanical noises associated with the Valiant and the Peterbilt, and the latter’s growls and hisses make it a truly legendary villain all on its own (we see only the barest glimpses of the driver). In a short lifetime of long drives I’ve heard a lot of compression brakes, and the sound they make is used to great effect here. Somehow this multiton monster lurks outside windows and in mirrors.
Another thing I really loved about the movie’s villain is that it behaves like an actual truck. Big rigs don’t normally go up on one side or stop on a dime or go from zero to sixty in two seconds. The truck in this movie never does any of those things. It never starts or stops quickly; in fact, the juggernaut rumble of its unstoppable wheels is a significant part of the film’s building tension. It never does ridiculous stuntlike things. It never corners sharply. And it can’t catch up on a grade. It’s entirely believable as a real semi even as it’s entirely believable as a diabolical entity bent on murder.
There was even a point where my own male parent, who has driven big rigs and was passing through the basement while I watched it, commented that its flammables tank must be empty for it to be going as fast as it apparently was. And guess what — (SPOILER) when the truck goes off a cliff and its tank is punctured, it doesn’t blow up and there’s no apparent leakage. Whereas if this movie had been made this year, the truck would be able to get up to a hundred and ten in less than a minute, be equipped with rocket launchers, and erupt into a massive fireball on contact with the ground.
Of course, a remake of this movie would be a bad idea, not that I’m not positive someone is considering it as we speak. For one thing, the existence of cell phones would tend to destroy the tremendous isolation of the setting, where the only hope of calling for help involves easily-crushed outdoor phone booths.*** And someone would probably add in a blond hottie working at one of the gas stations in order to jack in a useless love interest instead of giving the protagonist a disgrunted stay-at-home wife on the other end of the phone.
The only thing I found somewhat annoying were the voice-overs. This film doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue, and most of it is David Mann talking to himself inside his head. The film is actually at its best when there is no talk at all, and it’s just us and the two vehicles and the endless, endless road. Fortunately, that’s most of the film.
This may have been made for television originally, but it’s of a level of quality that isn’t often achieved in in film, then or now. I recommend it highly.
*A notable recent one being the Tarantino double feature Grindhouse. References are made to Vanishing Point in that film, and stuntman Carey Loftin was in Vanishing Point, too.
**And horrible, horrible high-waisted pants. His socks also do not match either his pants or his shoes, and I can’t imagine why this would bother me given my normal level of sartorial semi-competence, but it does.
***And that whole “We’re out of reception!” thing that happens in so many movies is just plain annoying. Honestly, why can’t people drop or step on or run over their cell phones, the way I do?
- Some scenes were later reused as stock footage in an episode of The Incredible Hulk, particularly involving the Valiant crashing. Director Steven Spielberg thereafter insisted that his future contracts contain a clause protecting future films from use as stock footage.
- This movie was shot in 13 days, all on location.
- Actor/stuntman Carey Loftin, when he asked the director what the trucker’s motivation was for tormenting Dennis Weaver’s character, was told: “You’re a dirty, rotten, no-good son of a bitch.” Loftin replied, “Kid, you hired the right man.” Loftin’s impressive resume as a stunt driver and coordinator includes (among a huge number of others) Vanishing Point, Mighty Joe Young, Days of Thunder, Thunder Road, and Rebel Without a Cause, and goes all the way back to his first uncredited role in 1937. He was born in 1914 and died in 1997. The last movie on which he is credited is The Rookie in 1990, at which time he would have been about 76 years old.
- David Mann drives a Plymouth Valiant. The truck appears to be a Peterbilt, although the label is grimed over so it’s hard to tell.
- Those terrible, terrible pants.
- Per IMDB: The diesel locomotives pulling the Southern Pacific freight trains are too modern to be equipped with the deep single-note airhorns as heard in the film. Leslie or Nathan muti-chime horns can clearly be seen on the cab roofs of the locomotives and should have a blaring brassier tone. The horns are not blown in the normal 2 longs, a short and a long per regulation approaching grade crossings.
- IMDB also says you can see the license plates on the Valiant and the truck appear and disappear and change color between scenes, but I didn’t notice this at all. D’oh.
- There are seventeen notches on the truck’s headlight. The multiple license plates on the front are supposed to be from cars it has “killed.”
- I hope no animals were harmed. Poor tarantula.
- It should come as no surprise that none of the truckers in the cafe scene is actually the trucker, since none of them fit the description we’ve already been shown from brief glimpses of him traveling past. The antagonist of the film is clean-shaven and wears a baseball cap and cowboy boots. Nobody in the cafe actually looks like this.
- The very first glimpse we get of David Mann is in his rear view mirror.
- Sneaking up on someone with your semi. That’s pretty impressive.
- SPOILER: In the scene when the truck goes over the cliff, the door is obviously open, revealing that the driver bailed before it went over. A piece of machinery that was supposed to keep the truck going straight failed, and he didn’t want to be late for an appointment, so he stayed in the driver’s seat until just before it went over the cliff.
David Mann (choking on fumes from truck): Talk about pollution!
Voice on radio: Well, the form says you want to know if I’m the head of household. The fact is that every since I’ve been married to that woman that I’ve been married to, unfortunately, for the last 25 years…
Service Station employee: You’re the boss.
David Mann: Not at my house, I’m not.
Farmer: What happened?
David Mann: That truck driver tried to kill me!
David Mann (voice-over): Twenty, twenty-five minutes out of your whole life, and all the ropes that kept you hangin’ in there get cut loose. And it’s like, there you are, right back in the jungle again.
Mann: Well, why didn’t you ask that truck for help?
Bus Driver: What truck?
Mann (v/o): He’s crazy. He’s got to be crazy.
Mann: You can’t beat me on the grade! You can’t beat me on the grade!!
If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
- Joy Ride