DUEL (1971 United States)

red carThe idea for this great story came to writer Richard Matheson as he was driving home from a cancelled golf game after finding out President Kennedy had been assassinated. He and a golfing friend were terrorized by a large truck on a narrow stretch of road.

The 18-wheeler started tailgating them and the faster they drove the faster the rig pursued them until finally his friend, who was driving the car, turned off into a dirt siding. This caused the car to spin around while the truck driver went flying past. Moments after the occurrence Matheson jotted down on an envelope “man gets chased by a truck.” If you’re too young to remember what life was like before cell phones, Duel is a great reminder of how dramatically that device has changed the world. Today, people take for granted being able to call the police, call their loved ones or call anyone at all whenever they feel like it. It’s easy to forget just how different things were before such omnipresent communication.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a mild-mannered, somewhat henpecked guy who sets out one morning on the California highway system for an important business meeting. Mann finds himself stuck behind this slow moving, smoke-belching fuel tanker and passes it. It seems like the most normal thing in the world, until the tanker races back in front of him and then slows down again, setting off a game of cat-and-mouse with the rusty old rig becoming more and more dangerous, getting closer and closer to forcing Mann into a terrible ‘accident’.

However, we do spend a lot of time up close and personal with Dennis Weaver, who gives it his all as Mr Mann. We get a vague sense of him being a decent working stiff, rather out of his element in rural flyover country, especially after we hear an early phone call to his wife, revealing the outline of a certain social conflict that doesn’t make him out to have much balls. Throughout the film, we only see what he sees. We can only think what he thinks.

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That is why I am skeptical of the occasional voice-over. It’s something that I personally would’ve avoided, and I feel they’re unnecessary, even when he goes on at length about what he must do when he stops at the café. I think it has more to do with the television-movie format than Spielberg’s creative decisions or even Richard Matheson’s. Early TV films (as classic as many are) tend to gift-wrap everything too much. Then again you could argue Weaver’s narrated thoughts add a layer of intimacy to our experience of his struggle.

One of the unusual things about Duel is how quiet it is for this sort of thriller. Spielberg uses very little background music, relying on the sounds of the road, the vehicles and the radio to hold your attention. The roar and clatter of the grime covered fuel tanker becomes as ominous and as threatening as the Jaws theme. The other really interesting thing is that this sort of story is usually set in an isolated environment. Being trapped alone with a killer is one of the fundamental plots of the suspense thriller, but Mann encounters other people four different times while trying to elude his pursuer.

First at a café full of people before he understands how much danger he’s in, then with a school bus full of kids on the side of the road, then trying to call the police from a petrol station and finally begging a passing car for help. But he is treated like a stranger in a strange land. No one is willing to help him in any way. He finally has to take up the challenge of defeating the enemy with the only resource he has to hand: his red Plymouth Valiant. The best thing you can say about Duel is that it is still entertaining people more than forty years later. Plus it was a master stroke to never show the driver’s face.

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Comments

  1. A truly excellent movie, with fantastic direction by Steven Spielberg (of course). Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate your comments. Grazie! (As they say in Italy) 🙂

    Like

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