(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 the age of 28 because he made this movie, masterfully, at age 24.
While not technically his feature debut (this was Made-for-TV effort, not for theaters, and it debuted on ABC in 1971), Duel became the movie that would launch Steven Spielberg from directing episodic television to blockbusters on the big screen. He did it by taking this fairly thin “Man vs. Machine” construct and elevating it to Hitchcockian levels of thrills and suspense.
Based on a short story by novelist Richard Matheson, Duel is about a salesman named David Mann (Dennis Weaver). While on business road trip across a rural two-lane stretch in the California desert, Mann is chased and terrorized by the driver of a large fuel tanker truck, for no other offense than simply passing the slow-moving behemoth. This harmless — not to mention legal — act triggers the driver (whom we never see) to stalk Mann relentlessly, cat-and-mouse style, barreling down towards Mann’s car in numerous attempts to run him off the road and kill him.
Layering this high speed 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 phone calls back to his wife, paired with his inability to confront his violent pursuer)
- Post-war PTSD (Mann is a Vietnam vet, and his traumatic experiences from the war still haunt him).
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 psychologically- damaged person who learns to regain his courage and backbone.
With a name a bit too metaphorically on-the-nose, it’s about Mann becoming, well, a man again.
The title, too, can be read with multiple meanings.
- The external “duel,” obviously, but also the internal one.
- The “dual” sides of Mann that are in conflict with each other: the latent side (courage) that needs to overcome the oppressive side (fear).
The original TV cut for was a tight 74 minutes (and so with commercials, it aired for 90 minutes). But after the broadcast was so well received, the producers saw an opportunity for overseas box office. As a result, the entire crew was reassembled to shoot additional sequences that would flesh out the narrative to feature length.
Amazingly, instead of watering down this one-trick premise, the extra scenes actually ramped up the tension and expanded the underlying themes.
For Spielberg, Duel further revealed the budding talent that was first apparent in his short Amblin‘. Yes, Matheson’s script is inventive in the unique sequences it constructs, ones that inventively draw out this sadistic game, but the palpable terror that results is all derived from Spielberg’s taut direction.
In lesser hands, Duel would’ve been limp or forced. The real miracle is not only in how Spielberg maintains suspense for an hour-and-a-half but that he progressively cranks it up.
Keeping the driver hidden the entire time was a decisive master stroke (an idea that Matheson wrote into the script and that Spielberg deftly 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.
- 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. 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 famous film adaptations included 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 that convinced Spielberg he was the right guy to embody Mann’s anxiety, panic, and fear. The studio wasn’t as convinced, however, and it wasn’t until the night before actual 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 serves as Executive Producer for 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.