What’s it About?
A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by a malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg (Night Gallery, The Sugarland Express) directed this 1971 TV film, which aired on ABC, based on the short story “Duel” which was written by the iconic and amazing storyteller, Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Twilight Zone, Hell House). Spielberg brilliantly chose the color red for the pumped up Plymouth Valiant so it could stand out against the ominous dirty and rust ridden, killer tanker truck. A truck that chases and attacks poor electronics salesman, David Mann, across desolate highways in the Californian desert.
Dennis Weaver (McCloud) plays Mann as a bespectacled straight and narrow individual, who while driving on a business trip in his Valiant, runs afoul of a mysterious person who is intent on using a tanker truck he drives as a weapon to put an end to Mann’s days. Weaver’s Mann is a bit of a stuffy dude. He is somewhat officious, prim, proper and listens incessantly to talk radio. He’s a family guy, with no real problems other than he leaves his home before saying goodbye, who has a wife who does not like his long trips away. Once Mann, on his way, decides to pass a slow moving 1955 Peterbilt 281 Tanker Truck, do things get very horrifying and alarming for him.
Spielberg does things correctly right out of the gate in this TV movie (which saw a theatrical release overseas and a limited release in some parts of the US), one being that he cements the isolation that Mann experiences. The highways are desolate, lonely and dangerous. Mann, himself is a tightly wound up guy, that Spielberg manages to turn into a ticking time bomb. The experiences of Mann with the blood-thirsty tanker truck swings and acutely reverses Mann’s character, making him a man trying to fight for his survival. Once these things are in place, Spielberg turns Matheson’s story into a very chilling and eerie ride.
Since “Duel” was too short for some theater showings, Spielberg, at Universal’s behest, spent a few days turning the film into feature length by shooting added footage. If you get a chance to, make sure you catch the 90 minute film which, I believe is the version on the dvd. The extra footage, I believe, includes more aggressive action, and some profanity. Spielberg also deftly handles the “heavy” in this with precise professionalism.
Like his approach in “Jaws,” Spielberg never shows the tanker truck driver. (though we do get a shot of some feet and a hand here and there) It’s a smart move. This creates a mythos, right away, that the man behind the wheel is a complete mystery. A force of nature, with no rhyme or reason, rather than a random psycho guy behind the wheel. A type of “Michael Myers” behind the wheel of a rusted out Peterbilt.
I must discuss what could be the shining “Hitchcockian” moment that Spielberg does really well in “Duel.” After avoiding almost certain death by the tanker, Mann (Weaver) stops at a place named Chuck’s Cafe to quietly assess and analyze what is happening to him. As he sits at his booth (He orders swiss cheese on Rye and continues to spell R-Y-E to the waitress further exposing Mann’s precise interior persona) and watches other truckers and patrons sit and eat at the front diner counter.
As he does, Spielberg supplies us with a frenzied and delirious narrative from within Mann’s mind. We hear his thoughts as the camera focuses on the patrons and what they wear and what they are eating among other things. He frantically tries to connect things, images and plans out various scenarios . Is his killer trucker one of these men? What does he want? Why is he after ME? It is a brilliant tactic that Spielberg has honed over the years. It is a completely nail biting scene that still send chills down my spine and is brilliantly edited.
Back in the 70’s TV were definitely done well and “Duel” is no exception. It is harrowing and when the finale comes we are rooting for Mann and we sympathize completely with his plight in his fight to survive. Mann eventually rallies against the tanker truck, and as he becomes more and more feral-like in his ferocity to stay alive, we manage to relate to him much more. The tanker truck vs Valiant sequence is a standout and if the reins would have been in inferior hands, the ending could have become quite trite and even laughable.
But not in this film. The ending is rage fueled and fever pitched. “Duel” is indeed the “Jaws” of the California Highways. It is a break-through film for Spielberg and it is great to watch him build suspense and honor the dynamics and textures of these types of films. Weaver is great to watch here as well and even as he unwinds because of what is happening, we root for him and his ability to survive.
Because of Richard Matheson’s suspenseful material in Spielberg’s hands, “Duel” plays out like an amazing extended “Twilight Zone” episode and that is a great thing in my book. It is layered and very simple but eventually creates mood and complexity. With great photography by Jack A. Marta (Batman, Hawaii Five-O) and some fantastic chase sequences and stunts, “Duel” delivers some wonderful 70’s TV Movie greatness and nostalgia. Highly recommended!
Vic’s Note: Look out for Lucille Benson ( Silver Streak and Halloween II) in a hilarious cameo in the “Snakerama” scene in “Duel.” A role she later reprised for Spielberg in “1941”