DUEL is one of the greatest made for television movies of all time and you’d have a hard time finding anyone who has seen it who would disagree. The great Richard Matheson (I AM LEGEND) adapted the screenplay from his short story of the same name and it’s the first feature length offering from legendary director Steven Spielberg. It’s hard to imagine what viewers may have expected when they tuned into the ABC Movie of the Week on November 13, 1971 but it’s safe to say they were left riveted. Incredibly, this lean machine has lost absolutely none of its forceful potency over the years.
Dennis Weaver stars as David Mann, a put upon businessman on a road trip who seems to be subtly emasculated at every turn. When the talk radio he listens to in his car isn’t preoccupied with issues involving its listeners’ masculinity, his wife is haranguing him on the phone about failing to defend her honor the night before. His frazzled state is further exasperated when he encounters a darkly ominous, monstrous diesel truck upon the highway hell bent on not only psychologically terrorizing him but also putting his very life in danger. Even a momentary respite from terror in a roadside restaurant turns into a paranoid nightmare as Mann, after viewing the aforementioned truck idling outside, begins to suspect every patron as potentially his nemesis.
Much like he’d later deliver with the classic JAWS (‘76) Spielberg conjures an impossible to escape or fully understand entity as formidable as death itself. Sure, the idea of a negative squabble with a stranger is something universally relatable but Mann only gets the briefest of glimpses of the truck’s driver (an elbow here, a boot there) and the withholding of any concrete information about his adversary creates the maddening possibility of a supernatural or demonic presence (an idea that seems backed up by the sound effects and musical cues.) It’s truly incredible how Spielberg is able to portray the mechanical vehicle as a living, snarling beast that means to destroy Mann with or without its driver. With little use of dialogue or backstory, DUEL comes across as a sort of epic visual poem depicting one man’s battle to simply hold his ground against larger forces that want to subjugate him.
DUEL fittingly received high praise from audiences and critics alike and made for an undeniably persuasive calling card for director Spielberg. The television version was considered too short for theatrical release so several scenes were added along with a few choice curse words that were inappropriate for TV. The new 90-minute film played in Europe to continued praise and was even released in the US an unheard of ten years after its original television airing. DUEL’s influence is nearly incalculable, besides introducing the world to one of its most renowned and successful directors; it has been referenced in video games, cartoons and a multitude of films over the years. Beyond its ubiquitous presence in media, there’s no doubt that anyone who has viewed DUEL thinks twice about getting into an altercation with anyone driving a truck while on the road.