Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” is just a simple movie about a traveling everyman who tries to pass a huge flammable truck on a state highway, and is then strangely stalked by this angered truck driver who seems to want him dead. The everyman is played by Dennis Weaver, and his character’s name in the film is David Mann–a businessman driving across California for a business meeting who is desperately late and struggling to get around an obnoxious eighteen-wheeler blocking the highway. After he passes the trucker, it seems to trigger a sort of strange road rage game between the two men.
At first everything seems to be quite normal, but then the truck swerves around David’s car and slows down its speed again, keeping David behind schedule and driving behind a bunch of nasty fumes. Frustrated with the driver’s arrogance, David decides to swerve around the truck again, and he soon finds himself on his way down the road, far away from the truck driver.
But his escape is not quite so simple.
The key to “Duel” is that we never see the truck driver, just like we never saw the shark from “JAWS” in its entirety. The truck driver haunting Mann seems to be a simple man who just suddenly goes nuts. Sometimes the best villains are those given no motivational background–Michael Myers from “Halloween” was described as “evil” by his own doctor, apparently killing for no reason whatsoever, and the shark from “JAWS” seemed to be the materialization of some sort of demon from hell. Their intentions are not clear–and that makes the film carry an intriguing mystery about it that makes it all the more watchable on a repetitive basis.
I was never a very big fan of “The Hitcher,” which ripped off “Duel” quite a bit. Both films essentially deal with supernatural, untouchable villains shrouded by a layer of mystery. We never found out very much about Rutger Hauer’s character in “The Hitcher,” or why he was doing what he was doing, but by introducing him to the audience it made us want to know more–and the film took the easy way out by just providing us with nothing whatsoever. Even after promising us that it would through the very mouth of Hauer’s character. That’s bad filmmaking.
Spielberg does something different: He avoids the truck driver altogether. Apart from seeing his legs and a brief glimpse of his silhouette, the truck driver is completely shrouded by a dark cloud of mystery and intrigue. Had he been shown rising out of the truck disaster at the end of the film, burning alive like The Terminator, then the effect would be somewhat laughable. Spielberg does something much greater and more fantastic–this could, in technical terms, be called his most elaborately staged and perfectly executed film, even if it isn’t the best on an overall basis.
There’s a great scene in “Duel” where Mann stops at a roadside diner and tries to analyze his situation. At that point in time anyone could be the villain–the guy eating a sandwich, the guy with cowboy boots having a soda, or even the woman standing by the exit. But we never know, and either does Mann, and it helps this film quite a bit. But what Spielberg does that is pure genius is showing us Mann’s thoughts through voice-over narrative in a way it has never really been done before. We hear Mann talking to himself, but not in an aware way. It is as if we pick up his mental decisions and thoughts via the film–and it works magnificently.
You’ve probably seen “Speed” by now, and so you know its breakneck speed and thrills. Well, take “Speed,” throw in a homicidal truck driver, and set it in the early 70s, and you’ve got yourself a clear idea of what “Duel” feels like while you’re watching it. It’s one of those give-me-a-moment-to-catch-my-breath films–intriguing and fast-paced from start to finish.
Indeed, “Duel” is an early sign of Spielberg before he went commercial–not that his films aren’t good anymore, but they all seem to contain typical Spielberg trademarks. Here, Spielberg shows that he can be a Hitchcockian director–even “JAWS” was more mainstream-oriented than this film.
Originally filmed for ABC in 1971 and later re-released overseas with nineteen minutes of extended footage, “Duel” is indeed a milestone movie–a counter to the ancient mythology that TV movies aren’t any good. They can be. Most of the time they just don’t want to be. But thanks to an intriguing idea and a terrific young director behind the project, “Duel” stands as one of the most remarkable films of all time, a sign of great things to come in the career of an aspiring newbie director with not a single true project under his belt. This is Spielberg’s breakthrough. He has surpassed it with projects such as “JAWS,” the “Indiana Jones” trilogy and “Schindler’s List,” but to say this is one of his most well made and unconventional films is a gross understatement.