Format: DVD from Seneca Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.
One of the things that I find interesting about movies is how many acclaimed, award-winning directors started out doing thrillers and horror movies. Counted in that number is Steven Spielbeg. Jaws wasn’t his first horror-themed movie; the made-for-television Duel was. Duel is based on a Richard Matheson story and a Matheson script as well, so he started from a good place. Duel may not show the polish of Spielberg’s later efforts, but it’s a hell of a good place to start from. This is a tight thriller that uses solid camera work to ratchet the tension for the full 90 minute running time.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a traveling salesmen heading out to make a sales call. On the way, he gets caught behind a dirty big rig going well under the speed limit. David passes it, and a few moments later, the rig passes him and slows down again. David goes around again and when the truck starts to approach him again, he speeds off down the highway.
From this simple beginning, Duel builds up a classic battle between David Mann and the unseen driver of the rig. For whatever reason, the truck driver decides to terrorize David for the rest of the movie. What makes this work more than anything is that we never see the truck driver and we never learn exactly why David is the target of his maniacal rage. David tries everything he can think of to avoid, distance himself from, or elude the trucker, but nothing works. At every turn, the truck driver attempts to harass him or get him killed. This includes inviting him to pass on blind turns with oncoming traffic, attempting to push him into passing trains, and otherwise trying to push him off the road.
Honestly, that’s really all there is to Duel. The entire film is David Mann trying to get away from the truck and the truck always finding him and attempting to kill him. There’s no plot beyond that and no explanation for what happens. In a lot of cases, this wouldn’t work at all. We need to sympathize with David, and that’s easy to do, since he’s being attacked for no good reason. We need to see the truck as a real threat, and that’s easy to do, too. But beyond that, we need to buy the situation, and this is where things are a problem. In a real sense, the situation seems so out of bounds that it’s hard to see it as being real, at least on the surface.
It’s here that Duel surprisingly works. I’ve been in a situation like this more than once. Not as extreme, of course, but I’ve seen road rage happen and have seen people go completely batshit over nothing while driving. For a situation that becomes so dire and so extreme so quickly, Duel is actually pretty relatable. Oh, I don’t mean that you can specifically relate to someone trying to ram your car into a passing freight train, but the idea that someone would lose it and start attacking someone else for no reason is something most of us have seen. And so it works.
The real problem for me is that I don’t really have a lot more to say about it. Spielberg’s direction is a little clunky in places. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the film, naturally, but there are moments of Dennis Weaver “thinking” dialogue, and these don’t work very well. Having him actually talking to himself would be a lot more effective here, but a mistake like this would be easily passed off as mistake from a young director. And while that might be a rookie mistake, Spielberg’s direction otherwise shows a surprising maturity. Not showing the driver of the truck and always showing the truck from an angle where the driver is invisible is brilliant. Keeping the danger completely faceless only enhances the tension, and actually makes the whole thing a lot more relatable.
Even if Duel didn’t work, it would be worth seeing for this early look at Steven Spielberg behind the camera. As it happens, though, Duel is a hell of a good thriller on its own merits regardless of who sat in the director’s chair.
Why to watch Duel: Spielberg started out badass.
Why not to watch: The resolution feels unsatisfying.