You may not be familiar with Duel, but you’ve probably see it parodised once or twice. This 1971 film is frequently cited as one of the best movies ever made for the television, and that is a statement that it would be hard to disagree with – its sheer simplicity combines with an effective central performance and top-notch directing to create a surprisingly thrilling picture. Oh, and it started off the career of some wunderkid by the name of Steven Spielberg – you may have heard of him…
David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a mild mannered electronics salesman, is driving cross-country on a two-lane highway when he encounters an old oil tanker driven by an unseen driver who seems to enjoy annoying him with dangerous antics on the road. Mann soon finds that he is unable to escape the big rig, and so he finds himself in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the monstrous truck. The pursuit continues to escalate to deadlier levels, and David must find it in himself to confront his tormentor and turn the tables on him.
Now, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pretending that Duel is in any way a perfect film, nor one of those must-sees that should find place on your cinematic bucket list – it is a basic picture, made for TV many years ago and clearly showing its age. However, it remains as effective at building suspense as it must have done forty years ago – for a movie that is essentially a lot of driving along, it is remarkably tense (and, indeed, the very thinness of its premise means it can focus on the tension the movie should and does generate).
Weaver is fine here as Mann (Mann vs. machine – do you geddit?), even though some of the interior monologues he delivers skirt the line between well-acted and hammy. However, his role is not really the main focus of this picture – instead, it belongs to the monstrous truck which is as much of a character as he is. Spielberg refuses to show us the driver and uses his camera to create the impression of the truck as a sentient and murderous creature, and he completely succeeds here. It is imposing – it repeatedly takes up a lot of, if not all of, the frame, and it almost seems to scream as it blares its horn.
The story was based on an idea from Richard Matheson, and it is fortunate that the film retains the simplicity of the tale – too much story here (or any, really) would have served only to defuse the tension builds throughout. Questions of motivation are kept mercifully simple – for Mann, it is to stay alive – or completely unanswered – and let’s be frank, we can all imagine how much worse the movie would have been if the truck driver suddenly turned out to be Mann’s long lost brother, or the man he killed at camp one summer, or whatever other motives for murder were trotted out in horror films back then.
Duel is never really going to be hailed as an essential Spielberg film, even by horror fanatics like me, but the beginnings of his style are definitely apparent here – a mastery of using the visual for storytelling, and cinematography to evoke and control a mood (even if that mood is tension rather than his typical tears of bittersweet happiness). Nevertheless, it sets out to thrill and that it does very well – Duel is still watched and heralded as the edge-of-your-seat film that it really is, and it is a good movie to seek out.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Café Owner), Lou Frizzell (Bus Driver), Gene Dynarski (Man in Café), Lucille Benson (Lady at Snakerama)
Running Time: 90 Mins