Nothing escalates the tension in a great film like the promise of a climactic duel. A showdown from which only one person can walk away the victor is a reliably satisfying storyline which the movies have set up over and over. But what’s special about a psychological duel is that it can be stretched across the entire runtime of a film, without one party having to pay the ultimate price too quickly. When a standoff takes place in the vast landscape of the mind, the suspense felt by the audience can be prolonged and even heightened.
Like in a good game of chess, the lack of verbal expression during a battle of wits often amplifies the anxiety right up to the boiling point. As each combatant tries to peer into the other’s thought process, thinking one step ahead in order to predict the next move, the audience is compelled to join the game.
Part of the fun is that the film viewer also engages psychologically by trying to read the intentions of the duelists on screen; perhaps we wish to prove ourselves the ultimate victor by predicting correctly who the cinematic winner will be. Whatever our motivations for watching, psychological duels in films provide a special thrill that we just can’t get enough of. Here are ten great examples worth revisiting.
10. 3 Women (1977) – Robert Altman
In this brain-twister of an art film, it’s not easy determining who the ultimate victor is; at various points we’re not even fully clear about the identities of the duelists. But 3 Women is a brilliant piece of storytelling that manages to keep us fully engaged through its unconventional style.
One might properly call this a dreamscape duel, for it’s a surreal adventure into fuzzy parts of the subconscious mind that manifest in ways unintelligible to us at times. In fact, director Robert Altman said that the film came to him in a dream.
Its main characters are two girls who work together and decide to become roommates. One is carefully studied in the ways of high society, though in the eyes of others she’s little more than a self-parody. The other worships the stylish girl, whom she believes to be the epitome of class and culture.
After a few months of living together in some degree of isolation, their relationship begins to deteriorate. But the story is just getting started, as their personalities begin to subtly merge to the point that the girls almost seem to have switched souls while in the same bodies. Whatever expectations you bring to 3 Women, be prepared to check them at the door.
9. Heat (1995) – Michael Mann
Heat seems to have all the elements needed to set up an ideal and immediate physical duel, but its multi-layered story has much to say before that happens. The setup is a classic contest between a criminal and a cop, each of whom are consummate professionals in their chosen line of work.
They spend most of the film dancing around each other, almost crossing paths time after time, but yet outsmarting each other in turn. A rich cast of characters with fleshed-out storylines swirl around the proceedings, but this main conflict is the heart of the story.
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are unforgettable as the career criminal and dedicated cop whose individual life choices are the driving force behind the other’s actions. Much of the film is dedicated to their psychological duel, which plays out in exquisite cat-and-mouse fashion in Los Angeles.
When they finally meet face to face, the tension is palpable as the two strong minds size each other up before engaging in one final contest. Heat is a brilliantly crafted tale of the interwoven lives of two men who seem bound together by fate and destined to face off.
8. Diabolique (1955) – Henri-Georges Clouzot
More than one psychological duel is at work in this perfectly executed French suspense thriller. When an overbearing schoolmaster carries his arrogant behavior too far, his wife and his mistress conspire together to do away with him. In order to procure freedom for them both, the women must carefully manipulate their former love interest so as not to give away their plans.
But after the deed is done, new tensions surface and fresh battles of wits emerge. When one of the scorned women begins to suspect that the true motivations of the other were kept secret, suspicions start to flare. With the threat of blackmail hanging over both of their heads, the conspirators must walk a razor’s edge to preserve their secret and their lives.
7. Woman in the Dunes (1964) – Hiroshi Teshigahara
In this classic Japanese film, mysterious sand dunes play host to the perennial psychological duel between man and woman. Woman in the Dunes feels like equal parts drama and allegory, and both aspects are fully effective.
Its Kafkaesque story is engaging through its surreal banality: a man on vacation becomes caught in a sand storm, and agrees to stay the night with a local woman who lives in a sand pit. In the morning, he finds the rope ladder taken up and his fate seemingly sealed as a fellow resident of the dunes, where he must inexplicable shovel sand to preserve his life.
The screaming subtext of the film’s plot is the power dynamics at play between men and women. While one of them enjoys the companionship and occupation assigned to them, the other is constantly scheming to run away.
Even the moments when the two get along seem to be a pretense so that the woman lets down her guard and the man can try to climb out of the dunes and return to his previous life. Whether the ultimate resolution lies in cooperation or separation is determined by the psychological duel at play throughout the film.
6. Knife in the Water (1962) – Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski’s first feature film contains psychological tension thick enough to cut with a knife. The entire movie pulses with the mental duels unfolding on screen in a way that few others ever have. A couple are taking a vacation day on their sailboat, and decide to pick up a random hitchhiker along the way to the dock. When they decide that they have nothing to lose by inviting the young man on board their boat, the conflicts explode.
Between the older husband and the immature visitor arise petty competitions to prove their strength and manhood. When the husband suspects that his wife might be flirting with the hitchhiker, efforts to humiliate the newcomer begin in a passive aggressive way. The confident kid, for his part, wants to prove himself the equal of the more experienced husband, while flattering his own vanity with the wife’s attention.
A dozen permutations of these psychological duels unfurl with the sails of the boat which serves as the main setting. The turbulent waters around them only add to the sense of unrest and suspense in this riveting classic.