Kindertrauma Classics:: Duel (1971)

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.

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Caffeinated Joe
4 months ago

Great look back at such an awesome film. Was a childhood favorite in the late 70s/80s on weekend afternoons.

Ghastly1
Ghastly1
4 months ago

I just saw this for the first time a few minutes ago after hearing how great it was all my life. I’m not fond of Senor Spielbergo, but I can say without being hyperbolic, it’s the only one of his films I like and a pretty good film in general. I see it as a film playing upon the the fears, prejudices, stereotypes and contempt that feminized city slickers have for those people and places outside their orbit, much in the way Deliverance did and does. Mann was such an annoying whiny little bitch, I was rooting for Mr. Peterbilt the entire time. The ending sucked though; how could this trucker with preternatural abilities not be cognizant of the giant cliff upon which they were placed so precariously? I really wanted him to finish Mann off. Unk, thanks for kicking my ass into finally watching Duel- good stuff.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ghastly1
SmallDarkCloud
SmallDarkCloud
4 months ago

For what it’s worth, I’m a big fan of Spielberg’s work, even now, though not every film. I do think some of his more recent films in the past two decades, like Lincoln, Munich, and (especially) AI are great films that may be overlooked by some for either 1) being a Steven Spielberg film or 2) being a Spielberg film that doesn’t fit the “formula” of what fans expect his films to be.

That being said, I did not like Ready Player One at all, aside from Mark Ryland’s performance, which deserved a better movie. To be fair, the novel is abysmal dreck, so I’m not surprised even Spielberg couldn’t make something of it. I did like the Tintin movie more than I was expecting to, though.

Regarding Duel, there is a great book on the movie by Steven Awalt that not only covers the making of the films, but also includes the storyboards Spielberg used for the shoot. You can see he had an eye for cinema as it’s own medium even this early. Awalt interviewed many people who worked on Duel, including Spielberg and Matheson.

Last edited 4 months ago by SmallDarkCloud
SmallDarkCloud
SmallDarkCloud
4 months ago

Ghastly – I think the implication is that the trucker, whoever or whatever he is, is so determined to destroy Mann that he loses sight of anything else, even a trap. Mann is initially just as determined to “win,” but eventually wises up and realizes there’s a better way to stop this madness. You can read this as a metaphor for toxic masculinity and sone men’s obsessions with their vehicles. Yes, the term didn’t exist back then, but I think the theme fits (and the protagonist being named Mann is telling).

There’s a great, unrelated Harlan Ellison short story that predates the movie but works on a similar theme. Unfortunately, the title escapes me right now.

Last edited 4 months ago by SmallDarkCloud
Geoff
Geoff
4 months ago

Very nice article, uncle lancifer. I’ve always loved Duel and all the movies of that era filmed in the desert. There’s something so scary about the vast emptiness. One scene in Duel that always made me wonder was when he orders lunch in the diner and makes a big deal about getting his sandwich on rye bread. That’s R-Y-E, rye bread. I guess it’s just supposed to highlight his persnickety urban elitism but as a kid I wondered if some people had never heard of it.