It’s probably impossible now to see Duel any other way than retrospectively in the context of Steven Spielberg’s career. It was, of course, his first feature film after working in TV for about a year, including episodes of Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D. and Columbo. If one were a betting man wagering on the young 24-year-old director’s career during pre-production, realizing that his future success would depend on his success directing this made-for-TV movie in a span of 13 days, there would be heavy odds against him coming out of it alive and well. Of course, the betting man would’ve lost as we all now know the success and the indelible influence Spielberg’s had since Duel. Yet, in many respects, Duel crystallizes Spielberg’s unique skills as a director before he was ever given the weight of the world’s greatest/most important filmmaker.
The plot itself almost forces a critic to nix the synopsis section of the review as there’s very little to say. David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a middle-aged Los Angelas husband on his way to a meeting in his red Plymouth Valiant when he encounters a hulking, menacing, 1955 Peterbilt 281 semi-truck who decides he’s going to give him a run for his life. Over the next 90 minutes what ensues is a cat-and-mouse thriller between David and one of the most unique supervillain monsters in the history of cinema, with Spielberg taking queues primarily from Hitchcock’s thrillers and Orson Welles’ location shooting and penchant for drama-heightening angles and lighting. It’s difficult to try and pad a paragraph describing the plot, because it literally boils down to a malevolent truck chasing a little man in a small car across miles of desert and mountain terrain.
The plot itself comes courtesy of Richard Matheson. It was a story inspired by a real-life experience driving home with a friend when they were getting tailgated by a huge semi-truck. Being the true writer he was, Matheson sketched down the idea, eventually transforming it into a short-story that was published in Playboy magazine. For those not familiar with Matheson’s name, you might be familiar with some of his writing credits, which include a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone, perhaps being most famous for Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in which a young William Shatner keeps seeing a monster outside his airplane window, destroying the plane. Matheson himself said that he unconsciously developed a penchant for pitting ordinary men against huge, bizarre, frightening and evil nemeses, and that Duel was one of his more abstract efforts. It was one in which he named the protagonist Mann, originally planning for it to be an allegory for mankind, but ditched that in favor of a straight thriller.
Spielberg seemed to pick up where Matheson left off, eschewing any allegorical philosophizing over the visceral power of a mystery thriller. But, part of the magic of art is the ability in which intuitive artists leave room open for interpretation in spite of their intentions (or lack thereof). Duel almost ostensibly reads like an allegory for a man returning to his animalistic roots. In this scenario, David plays the runty follower while the truck plays the alpha dog whose only intention is to keep his pack member in line. Of course, the fact that the truck seems more homicidal suggests even more of a sinister game, but there’s more compelling evidence for the former interpretation. Perhaps most tellingly is an early radio conversation in which a man reveals to a woman over the phone that he’s really not “the head of the household”, but that his wife has the job and makes the money.
However one wants to interpret it, it’s quite clear that Spielberg is interested in keeping you riveted to the edge of your seat above all other considerations, and Duel is little less than a masterclass on how to do precisely that with no budget. It’s almost a paradigm for young filmmakers on how to take no budget ($450,000, to be precise) and no time (10 days) and turn it into a supreme suspense thriller. In fact, the production of Duel is nearly as fascinating as the film itself as it shows Spielberg an audacious, technical genius, taking what he’s learned from film school and years of watching/studying films and putting it into practice. Spielberg said himself that if he was given the film to do today there’s no way he could do it again in that amount of time, on that budget. Rather, he says, it took having the right amount of gusto and naiveté necessary to pull of what could easily have been seen as a suicide mission.
In Duel, Spielberg somewhat wears his influences on his sleeves, and even his casting of Dennis Weaver as the lead reveals his affinity for Touch of Evil in which Weaver played the nervous, slightly paranoid, night manager. Spielberg felt Weaver could translate that energy perfectly into this film, and he does just that. Duel is certainly a film that’s a slow-burn, one that doesn’t waste all of its energy and tension early, but slowly builds it up over time, allowing quiet moments for reflection and release before squeezing the audience even tighter. Besides Weaver himself, Spielberg also borrowed Welles’ affinity for dynamic use of location—refusing to use fake processed shots—allowing the desert, mountains and his mobile camera to track the vehicles from a barrage of angles, effortlessly evoking a sense of speed, evil, tension and danger. Spielberg certainly learned early on that the sense of speed on film could be altered depending on the camera’s relation to the object and the moving background.
But it’s likely from Hitchcock that Spielberg borrows the most, realizing that, often, the mystery itself lends a sense of danger and drama that knowing too much takes away. Like Hitch, Spielberg never lets the audience off the hook, and even the quiet moments are filled with a potent sense of apprehension about who’s in the truck, or where the truck is, or where it’s coming from. It doesn’t help that we’re forced to face David’s own sense of self-emasculation to the point he can’t even stand-up for himself in a bar without getting beat up, or help give a schoolbus a push out of a ditch without having children laughing at his failed attempt. This isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger taking on The Predator, or even Schneider, Shaw and Dreyfuss taking on a shark; this is a weakling coming to face with his own powerlessness against a monster with no compassion.
Of course, one is almost compelled to draw comparisons between the truck-as-monster in Duel and the shark-as-monster in Jaws, and there are some interesting similarities in differences. Due to the lack of money, Jaws got most of its power through suggestion alone, rarely showing the shark since the puppet itself hardly worked as it was. In Duel there’s no worry about the truck not working or being shown, and, indeed, one could argue that it’s perhaps a more effective villain. It’s equally remarkable the personality that Spielberg is able to imbue the truck with. He quite intentionally cast the ’55 Peterbilt for its protruding front engine, which turned the windshields into eyes, the front grill into a snout, and the bumper into teeth. There’s little doubt that Spielberg gives the truck a mythical quality, even by the angles and the paint job alone. It’s slick, rusted surface seems to sweat oil from its pores, belching gas and using its horn like a primeval roar (of course, this contrasts perfectly with David’s shiny little sports car).
The comparison stretches farther when we realize that Spielberg gives the truck a nearly identical death scene to the shark (though the means of their demises are different). That said, Duel may have the best car crash ever filmed, with the tanker going over a cliff in slow-motion, pushing the burning car with it. If Spielberg ever ratchets up the mythic quality of the film, it’s here, with the truck going down and dying like a dragon sinking beneath the haze of smoke of his self-made conflagration. Spielberg even provides a beastly roar on the soundtrack to drill home the point, but it’s hard to stress just how mesmeric the crash is as Spielberg’s camera follows it in one shot, never cutting away to another angle. It’s bizarrely elegant and even (dare I say) moving, in a sense—like an elegy given in respect to a worthy, fallen foe.
If the film can be faulted, one can say that Spielberg occasionally fails to maintain the drama. I mean, if you stop and think about it, it is, frequently, just a film about a truck chasing a car. But the film clearly reveals one of Spielberg’s unique talents, and that’s his ability to sell any premise because he believes in it with the enthusiasm, faith and conviction of a child, but with the technical ability of a master. Spielberg seems like one of the few directors who has never become jaded by the movies and the business, which has likely allowed him to communicate so strongly and so deeply to so many. Spielberg has that incalculable, indefinable ability to capture the inner child of his audience and all those fears, hopes, dreams and fantasies. Duel may not be Spielberg at his absolute best, but it is Spielberg at his purest and most minimal.