L.A. salesman David Mann is taking a road trip for a business meeting. Along the way, he passes a tanker-trailer truck. The truck’s driver takes offense to this, setting off a deadly game as the apparently truck follows Mann across the California desert, apparently seeking nothing less than his death. Unable to lose his pursuer, Mann becomes increasingly desperate to escape with his life…
Based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson (and adapted by Matheson himself), the ABC TV-movie Duel stands as Steven Spielberg’s début feature. (Additional footage was shot for the film for a theatrical release, which is the version we watched for the site.) Matheson and Spielberg present Duel as a two-hander of a monster movie with a truck as the second hand. The truck is as much a character as Mann, and its driver is almost irrelevant: the most we ever see of him is an occasional (very occasional) arm cocked out the window or jeans-and-boots-clad leg as the driver exits the cab. Sometimes we get a glimpse of his face through the truck’s grimy windshield, but always distorted and never for more than a couple of seconds. The truck might as well be driving itself (and it’s not hard to think Stephen King, an avowed fan of Matheson who praises Duel highly in Danse Macabre, had the film in mind when he conceived and wrote “Trucks,” the short story that forms the basis of Maximum Overdrive).
The other half of the equation is Dennis Weaver (of Gunsmoke and McCloud fame) as David Mann, who’s the only major character (well…human character) in the film, who does an excellent job of portraying the role’s gradually increasing paranoia and hysteria. (Weaver was, at one point, as identified with Mann as he was with Chester Goode or Sam McCloud, and there’s some evidence to suggest the performance was one of Weaver’s personal favorites.) While there’s not a lot of character development, that actually turns out to be a bonus here, as Mann becomes a sort of Everyman trapped in a seemingly impossible situation. The prime weapon Duel has in its arsenal is its relatability–most of us who travel in automobiles have experienced the wrath of a particularly vengeful and offensive–maybe even dangerous–fellow-traveler, and Weaver’s performance goes a long way to establishing that. The supporting performances are fairly good–there’s not a dud in the bunch–although few truly stand out.
Spielberg’s talent is obvious at this early stage in his career. His compositions are inventive and engaging, and he makes terrific use of the desert locations. Spielberg’s inexperience and the film’s low-budget, made-for-TV movie nature are occasionally betrayed by some apparent continuity errors, particularly when the camera is pointed at the road, but this is forgivable because otherwise the chase sequences are some of the most exciting, suspenseful and riveting ever committed to film–they’re seriously up there with Bullit, the original Gone In 60 Seconds and Ronin in this regard.
Unfortunately, the scenes in between the chases aren’t as compelling. A scene in a diner where Mann believes the truck driver is one of the patrons drags and relies too much on internal monologue; another scene, in which Mann tries to help start a stalled school bus while the truck looks on feels like padding. While the excellence of the chases makes up for this, it can’t be denied that they hurt the overall finished product by throwing off the pacing…although it should also be noted that many of these “flaws” are actually perfectly acceptable by the standards of the early ’70s. (Some of these scenes were added to the theatrical version, so the lesson here is probably to seek out the 74-minute-long broadcast version if you can.) Also not helping matters is a painfully of-its-time score by Billy Goldenberg which sometimes works at cross-purposes to the atmosphere the film is trying to generate.
While age has tarnished some of its luster (it predates the coining of the phrase “road rage” by over a decade and a half), it’s still an engrossing and terrifying piece of work…once again proving that broadcast television can produce intense, uncompromising works of horror, so long as the filmmakers have the commitment to doing so.
My rating: 7 of 10.
90 minutes (theatrical version). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Dennis Weaver.