Steven Spielberg, like many other big-name directors that emerged in the early ’70s, got his start in television, and it was their practice in this new medium that came to define a new generation of filmmakers. Duel was just one of a number of films that Spielberg was contracted to make with Universal, and it was shot in a production span of two weeks! Released in 1971, it tells the simple tale of man v. machine. Simple tale, yet told with typical Spielbergian mastery.
Dennis Weaver gets behind the wheel as David Mann, a timid, white-collar wimp taking a highway drive on business when things take a turn for the surreal. A truck driver plays mental games with the guy, forcing him into your classic cat-and-mouse scenario as he continually hunts him down, pushes him over the edge, but seems intent on leaving him alive to give him a chance in his deranged highway game of death.
It’s a film about masculinity as much as it is about paranoia. A man who’s constantly intimidated and emasculated by his wife, by blue-collar buffs, by school kids, by tarantulas. Only by facing the truck can he overcome himself and truly become a Man, no doubt the reason behind his surname. It’s a theme that Spielberg’s known for and can more specifically be recognized in his 1975 thriller Jaws, for which Duel was just practice.
The truck itself, just like killer shark and T-Rex after it, is a primordial force. Even though at times you can see the driver’s arm or boots, his face is never fully visible, making the truck seem a being unto itself. It’s brilliantly devised and excellently executed. And again, like its oceanic successor, it’s a cinematic bundle of tension that warrants the praise of even Hitchcock himself. Speaking of the great master of suspense, the music is eerily reminiscient of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score, the successive shrills of strings constantly complimenting the massive force of the impossibly fast truck. That’s what Duel comes down to. It follows the line between fantasy and reality, taking a plausible situation and imbuing with that primal fury. No truck could accelerate as fast as it does in Duel. Interestingly enough, there are actually scenes with mental narration, like when Weaver stops off at a truck stop, a device rarely used by the film’s director.
All in all, it’s got action, thrills, fears about being attacked by an unstoppable and ruthless guerilla force, a theme that’s probably more relevant today in an age of terrorism than in 1971’s Vietnam. If you haven’t had a chance, put the pedal to the metal and get ready for one road trip you shan’t forget any time soon.