by Justin Bertolero
From the December 2015 IssueSteven Spielberg is easily one of the most recognizable names in modern cinema, having churned out hit movies since his breakthrough blockbuster, Jaws in 1975. Prior to this massive hit, Spielberg was hired by ABC to direct a TV movie based on a Richard Matheson short story. After gaining popularity amongst viewers, the film was eventually pushed to a theatrical release in Australia, Europe, and a select number of theaters in America. Not only does Duel succeed as a great TV movie and a fantastic chase film, it also helped launch the career of one of the most successful filmmakers of our time.
Duel takes place almost entirely on a two lane highway in the California desert. As David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a middle-aged salesman, drives home from a business trip, he notices a dilapidated, rusted-out semi-truck in his rearview mirror. As time goes on, he notices the vehicle getting closer and closer to him. Eventually, the interaction explodes into a 90-minute game of cat and mouse, equating to one large chase scene. Despite the fact that this was a film made for television, Spielberg makes this seemingly small picture feel much larger. There are no obvious cuts or fade outs that would be used for a commercial break, making this appear even more like a theatrical release.
The film succeeds on the basis of its excellently paced chase sequences, utilizing classic Spielbergian techniques. Spielberg often takes large sweeping shots, showing the chase in the context of the empty highway, which only increases the viewer’s sense of isolation. When combined with the tight shots of Mann sweating over the steering wheel and the close-ups of the behemoth truck, there is a tense, edge-of-your-seat quality that stays constant throughout the entire film. One could even argue that Duel could hold the same effect if it were a silent movie. It heavily relies on its shot composition and musical score, causing the film’s few lines of dialogue to become secondary.
One unique aspect of Duel is its use of a villain. Spielberg makes the wise choice of never once revealing the face of the man who drives the truck, which shifts the audience’s focus from the driver to the truck itself. The vehicle takes on a life of its own, personified as an ominous, looming antagonist. Spielberg had, at one point, even said that he picked that specific truck because the grill on the front resembled a face. By never centering the story on the human antagonist and instead focusing on the truck—clearly a more sizeable and formidable presence—he creates an even more terrifying and unstoppable subject to fear.However, the suspense is not just limited to the scenes on the road. This is particularly evident in a restaurant sequence, in which Mann thinks he is finally free of his pursuer. But he soon starts to suspect that the truck driver might actually be in the restaurant with him. The tension builds as he looks at each patron, his eyes frantically scanning the room. The psychological battle in his brain is completely palpable thanks to Weaver’s excellent performance. His ability to convey the terror and paranoia of being followed extends beyond this scene, holding firm throughout the rest of the film
Anyone can relate to driving alone at night and thinking, “that car has been following me for a while.” Duel expertly taps into that feeling, and plays out its worst case scenario. The most startling thing about the film is the lack of explanation. The viewer is left without any reasoning for the truck driver’s actions, harkening back to the old idea of good versus evil; the strong versus the weak. This playing with the ideas of power causes the viewer’s attachment to the blameless victim main character to grow even stronger.
Despite working under the stigmatic label of a humble TV movie, Spielberg went above and beyond the average “Film of the Week,” and created a picture that truly stands the test of time. Ignoring hindsight and the future of Spielberg, Duel remains a simple yet riveting chase film that holds its own against most other classics of the thriller genre.
4 out of 5 stars