(for sequences of action, some terror, a suggestive reference, and some language)
Released: November 13, 1971
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott (voice of), Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell
Steven Spielberg was asked to make Jaws at age 28 because he made this movie, masterfully, at age 24.
While technically not his feature film debut (it was made for TV, not theaters, debuting on ABC in 1971), Duel became the movie that would launch Spielberg from his years of episodic television to the big screen (eventually, anyway). He did it by taking this thin “Man vs. Machine” construct and elevating it to Hitchcock levels of thrills and suspense.
Based on a short story by novelist Richard Matheson, Duel is about a salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) who, while on a rural two-lane commute business trip across the California desert, is chased and terrorized by the driver of a large fuel tanker truck. Mann’s sole offense seems to have been passing the slow-moving behemoth but nothing more, causing the driver (who we never see) to relentlessly chase Mann, cat-and-mouse style, barreling toward Mann’s car in attempts to run him off the road at high speeds.
Layering this primal hunt are subtle yet clear themes: Pollution (the specific choice of the oil tanker, belching exhaust, with “FLAMMABLE” emblazoned across its back), Emasculation (played out through Mann’s hen-pecked calls back to his wife at home; his inability to confront his violent pursuer), and post-war PTSD (Mann is a Vietnam vet, and his traumatic experiences there still haunt him here).
Mann is a guy who avoids confrontation, as a survival tactic, but the unknown driver of this truck won’t let him. (The model of Mann’s car is, with ironic intention, a Valiant.) Duel becomes the arc of a person, psychologically damaged, who learns to regain his courage and backbone again. With a name a bit too metaphorically on-the-nose, it’s about Mann becoming a man again. The title, too, can be read with multiple meanings. The external “duel” as well as the internal one, plus Mann’s “dual” sides in which the latent one (courage) needs to overcome the oppressive other (fear).
The original cut for TV was a tight 74 minutes (with commercials, it aired for 90). But after it was so well received the producers saw an opportunity for overseas box office, so additional scenes were shot in order to flesh it out to feature length. Amazingly, instead of watering down this one-trick premise, the additional scenes only ramped up the tension and expanded the underlying themes.
This further revealed Spielberg’s budding talent. Yes, the script is laudably inventive in the unique devices and scenes it constructs, drawing out this sadistic game, but the palpable terror that results is all derived from Spielberg’s taut direction. Indeed, in lesser hands, this would’ve been limp and/or forced. The real miracle here is how Spielberg not only maintains suspense for an hour and a half, but that he actually cranks it up.
Keeping the driver hidden the whole time was a decisive stroke (an idea that Matheson wrote into the script, which Spielberg smartly kept and maximized), turning the truck into a monstrous, soulless beast. This instinct would serve Spielberg well in Jaws, too, when he began to run into problems with that production’s mechanical shark.
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- The film’s score, by Billy Goldenberg, owes nearly everything to iconic composer Bernard Herrmann and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Strains of Psycho can be gleaned especially. He experimented heavily, however, with African instruments and eerie sound effects, rather than just a straight traditional orchestra.
- Richard Matheson, the writer of the screenplay and short story on which it was based, was a novelist whose other most famous film adaptations are Somewhere In Time, What Dreams May Come, and I Am Legend. He was also a writer for TV’s The Twilight Zone.
- While Dennis Weaver was known for TV westerns and similar roles, it was a bit part in Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil which convinced Spielberg that Weaver was the right guy to embody Mann’s anxiety, panic, and fear. The studio wasn’t as convinced, and it wasn’t until the night before shooting began that Weaver was finally signed.
- At one point, Weaver’s Mann stops an elderly couple in a red car for help. Spielberg, who would later be the Executive Producer of Back To The Future, had that moment re-created with Marty McFly.
- Unit Production Manager Wally Worsley was a legend in the business. His career began as an assistant director on The Wizard Of Oz in 1939, and he would work again with Spielberg on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.