Duel (1971) - Steven Spielberg’s first major hit
What’s it about?
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving on a long business trip in his sedan across the California Desert. He hopes to make it back in time for dinner with his wife, children and mother. On the road, he overtakes a grimy-looking fuel tanker.
As his journey progresses, he encounters this tanker again and again. The driver’s behaviour starts to become childish and annoying as he attempts to block David from overtaking, and then more and more threatening to the point it becomes apparent that the driver is out to kill him.
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Why is it significant?
Contrary to popular belief, Duel wasn’t Steven Spielberg's first feature-length film. That was Firelight (1964), an ultra-low-budget precursor to Close Encounters of the Third Kind which was shown in just one cinema and is no longer available in its complete form. However, it was the first film which brought him to major attention.
Richard Matheson wrote the script with the original intention of pitching it to various TV series as the outline of an episode. However, after a number of failed attempts to do so, it was finally green-lit to be turned into a made-for-TV movie. Spielberg, who was working in TV at the time, got the job as director. However, after the original 74-minute version proved to be a huge success on its US television showing, Universal brought him back in to shoot new scenes to expand its length to 90 minutes with the intention of releasing it to cinemas for a limited domestic theatrical run and a wider release in Europe and Australia.
It is now widely considered to be a seminal entry in Spielberg’s filmography. Its outline also inspired a number of other films including the made-for-TV Killdozer (1974), The Car (1977) and The Hitcher (1986).
How does it hold up?
In Duel, Spielberg really does live by the cinematic maxims of “show, don’t tell” and “less is more”. After watching some of his overly worthy later films it’s hard not to wish he would go and re-watch this (plus Jaws and Raiders Of The Lost Ark) to reconnect with the pure unpretentious cinematic escapism he evinced early on.
The film’s opening credit sequence could not have been better. We get several minutes of POV driving shots, accompanied by the incessant chatter of the car radio. All of this works to establish this as a humdrum, normal, perfectly monotonous drive - the kind just waiting to be shattered with an out-of-the-blue occurrence.
After 5 minutes of this, we are introduced to both the driver of the car - named David Mann - and the sinister tanker. The two key players in the duel have been established so early and succinctly. David is clearly a little on edge right from the start and has good cause to become more so as the film progresses. The tanker is presented as some kind of monster, with its every surface covered in grey dirt, it spewing thick columns of smoke from its exhaust stack like ashes emitting from the depths of hell, each camera shot presenting it looming large or from a subtly skewed angle. That’s just what it is - a de facto monster, with the driver, tellingly, never properly seen let alone ascribed a motivation.
The film’s modus operandi becomes to milk every possible drop of tension and terror from an increasingly alarming situation. Mostly, it’s a cat-and-mouse on the road involving David’s red sedan and the increasingly dangerous behaviour of the tanker. The film looks like it may be taking a breather and settling down into a more conventional mystery narrative when David makes a rest stop at a cafe. The truck is seen to stop outside shortly afterward, and it appears that one of the several similar looking truck drivers could be the antagonist. However, the tension rapidly rises here as David nervously tries to work out how to resolve the situation, and eventually, the truck pulls away with the driver’s identity not being revealed, allowing the film to settle back into the feature-length chase that it is.
Dennis Weaver never quite became a major star but really should have done. He perfectly captures the rising annoyance, agitation and alarm that almost anyone put in this situation would experience. However, at the same time he has a streak of heroism and resourcefulness that helps him win the day. Spielberg, while often criticised for painting his characters in broad strokes really does well with these sort of protagonists that encapsulate a mixture of both vulnerability and heroism. Indiana Jones is another prime example, though more top-heavy on the heroism with a streak of vulnerability rather than the other way round.
Runtime: 90 mins
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Script: Richard Matheson
Starring: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell