3.5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes, a place in film history is a curse. Citizen Kane (1941) is funny in parts, but who watches it for a laugh nowadays? Who can sit through Casablanca (1942) without anticipating all of its legendary lines? Or watch Psycho (1960) as if it were unfolding afresh, without counting down the minutes until Janet Leigh takes a shower?

A similar kind of over-awareness afflicts Duel, Steven Spielberg’s feature debut (although he’d already made an acclaimed almost-feature-length episode of TV’s Columbo), which it’s all too easy to see as the first step in an illustrious career, and ignore its merits in itself. Is that zoom to David Mann (Dennis Weaver) in his car a precursor to the famous Jaws (1975) dolly zoom up to Roy Scheider’s face? Doesn’t this gas station show up again in 1941 (1979)? Could the grubby rig chasing Mann down empty California roads be a more malign version of the apparently beneficent alien craft in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? Isn’t it striking how markedly different Spielberg’s taut, gritty, ruthless thriller is from the abstract, philosophical musings of George Lucas’s debut the exact same year, THX 1138?

Yes, yes, maybe, and yes. But Duel isn’t just a formative step for the late-20th-century’s greatest populist director—it’s a fine film in its own right too. And it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t Spielberg’s creation alone. The concept came from Richard Matheson, the author best known for I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, who adapted his own short story for the movie. Indeed, Spielberg merely applied to ABC for the chance to direct Duel after the network had already decided to film it.

Originally a 74-minute TV Movie, it was extended to 90-minutes for a theatrical release with significant new material—including some of the opening shots, the entire sequence where Mann tries and fails to get a stalled school bus moving again, and a telephone conversation between Mann and his wife. The second of these, at least, significantly enhances the film but none of them change its overall thrust.

The film opens with Weaver’s Mann setting off from his anonymous Californian home in a newish Plymouth Valiant. For a full four-minutes we see the road almost from his point of view, and hear the same inane chatter and advertising on the local radio station that he hears, as he progresses out of the city and into the desert. Once there, he makes the mistake of overtaking an older semi-trailer truck, a filthy thing that looks like an amateur welding enthusiast might have assembled it at home. Competition soon flares between Mann and the truck’s driver—whom we never clearly see, though we’re granted occasional glimpses of his arm and his boots. The truck blocks him. Its unseen driver waves him forward into an oncoming car. When Mann pulls into a gas station, so does the truck. Eventually, the annoying truck even rear-ends the Plymouth!

We’ve given no explanation for any of this trucker’s behaviour, ever. How far does the driver intend to go? Is he just playing with Mann, or does he truly intend to do him harm? Was he really so infuriated by Mann overtaking him to do all this, or has he been cruising the highways looking for any victim?

Much of the film’s strong and unusual atmosphere derives from the truck itself, which becomes a character of equal importance to Mann. Film critic Molly Haskell described Duel as a stalker movie, but perhaps the truck resembles a slasher villain even more, given its animalistic nature: it roars, it appears to be opening its eyes when its headlights are suddenly switched on at the end of a tunnel.

There are satanic implications too: the word FLAMMABLE is displayed prominently on its side, and the evil exhaust spewing from its chimney could well be sulphurous. Or perhaps it’s a serial killer, with licence plates from many states suggesting it may roam far afield to find its prey. It’s one of the great vehicles in cinema history, as relentlessly sinister as the helicopter in Joseph Losey’s Figures in a Landscape (1970)–had Spielberg seen it?—and a clear inspiration for the equally unnerving truck in Jeepers Creepers (2001) many decades later.

Both the truck and Mann’s car are expertly caught by Spielberg and his experienced cinematographer Jack Marta, who with Duel was approaching the end of a career that had begun in the mid-1930s. They exploit the vehicles to the full with varied angles and much attention to physical details—Mann’s dashboard dials add tension to the climax, spinning wheels and yellow road markings heighten the sense of speed, his streaky rear windscreen gives visual interest to what would otherwise be a routine image. Indeed, the final shots of the entire movie are close-ups on truck parts, following a beautifully filmed larger-scale slo-mo sequence. 

Against all this clanging, shuddering metal the character of Mann inevitably seems weak, but of course that’s intentional, and Weaver—never really a star but more a prolific performer, and back then known for NBC’s McCloud cop show—renders him perfectly as a neat, overcautious man. (He spells out the kind of bread he wants, r-y-e, to the waitress when he’s ordering a sandwich.) His wariness in the face of the world is obvious, as is his eventual exhilaration when he breaks free of cautiousness.

Taking a backseat to the truck, the cinematography and Weaver, but still making an important contribution to the film, is Billy Goldenberg’s original music score. Often reminiscent of TV’s The Twilight Zone (which Matheson frequently wrote for), especially in the terrific scene where Mann watches a group of men in cowboy hats in a diner and tries to guess which might be the driver of the truck, it also nods to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. There’s even an allusion to the iconic Psycho shower sequence near the end of Duel.

Much of Spielberg’s success in his first feature is down to its simplicity, but such simplicity also gives a director nowhere to hide. Any misjudgements will be glaringly obvious—and indeed there are a few. This is a movie that’s generally well-paced, for example with the breaks from driving and with the gradual segue from normality to terror, but the scene where Mann phones home (which Spielberg himself regretted including) weakens the sense that he’s trapped out on the open road. In the otherwise effective diner sequence, meanwhile, the voiceover internal monologue goes on a little too long, again detracting from the tension.

None of this is enough to seriously damage the movie, however, and there are many deft touches, including some nice misdirections. In two separate scenes Spielberg plays with anticipation (ours and Mann’s), giving the impression the truck is attacking again but then revealing a train instead. (The second of these works doubly well because our expectations have been shaped by the first.) Another trick on both Mann and the audience involves what we presume is a police car—salvation!—until we realise it’s marked “Grebleips Pest Control”. (The odd name probably led to a complicated George Lucas hommage.)

Spielberg himself has suggested that the film’s a protest at the mechanisation of society, “an indictment of machines”, and it’s certainly true that not only is Mann constantly menaced by the truck, but he’s also at the mercy of his own vehicle, as are the school kids on the bus. Even so, this isn’t the obvious takeaway from Duel; a more convincing one is implied in another comment from the director, who spoke of Mann as “insulated by suburban modernisation… a man like that never expects to be challenged by anything more than his television set breaking down.”

This points to a reading of Duel as a film concerned with masculinity and specifically the lack (or perceived lack) of it among modern American men. The idea is raised early, when Mann’s listening to the car radio and a talk show caller confesses embarrassedly that he’s a stay-at-home house husband, and alluded to frequently throughout Duel. A gas-station attendant says “you’re the boss” to Mann, and he replies “not in my home I’m not.” The school kids jeer “you can’t do it” to Mann when he tries to shift their stuck bus, and indeed he can’t, and the insult is compounded when the truck appears and manages the task easily.

His wife, in their phone call, criticises him for not dealing with a friend who’d come onto her at a party the previous night. It’s amply clear, then, that despite his surname Mann is not a macho man. (Perhaps he can take encouragement from his Christian name, which the criticRyan Gilbey has suggested positions him as the victorious David against the truck’s Goliath.)

This reading also ties in with much of Spielberg’s later work (sorry…), for example with the inadequate fathers in Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It links Duel, too, to the many US films in which city-dwelling men have their manhood tested by the wilderness. As Mann says, “all the ropes that kept you hanging in there get cut loose”. John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), perhaps the best of these, came out the following year, but the James Dickey novel on which it was based had already been published in 1970.

The genius of Duel is that you’re not thinking about any of this stuff while watching it. Even at the beginning of his career, Spielberg’s filmmaking technique and understanding of how to reach an audience are so powerful you’re simply transfixed by the struggle between two men and their machines. It’s fascinating to trace back themes in the later Spielberg work to his first outing, but if this had been the only film he ever made, it would still be an utterly compelling one.

USA | 1971 | 90 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Steven Spielberg.
writer: Richard Matheson (adapting his own short story).
starring: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott & Carey Loftin.