Tip of the Spielberg – ‘Duel’ (1971)

*truck horn blares* This was the sound that greeted my morning, having had only four hours of sleep. Maybe watching Duel isn’t the best way to begin one’s morning. Granted, I don’t feel tired or restless. I also do not think this movie will put me back to bad either, given that truck’s horn will blare like the beastly iron menace it was created to be.

Made-for-TV movies are hit-and-miss. Disney Channel, Lifetime, and Hallmark have made a whole cottage industry out of them. While some are bangers (this film, Roger and Hamerstien’s CinderellaBehind the Candelabra, and The Luck of the Irish, to name a few), others falter (the Stalked by My Doctor series). For being an ABC Movie of the Weekend back in the 70s, Duel is seen as a standout to this day enough to warrant a theatrical release overseas. Spielberg was given the idea to turn the Richard Matheson short story by his assistant Nona Tyson. She read the story in an issue of Playboy (for the uninitiated, Playboy published fiction along with their nude pictorials) and felt it was perfect to adapt. Spielberg was ready to share this idea with Sid Schienberg, the president of MCA at the time. Schienberg was impressed by Spielberg’s rough cut of Columbo’s “Murder by the Book” that he trusted him with this project. 

Given ten days to shoot (then extending them to twelve after going over budget), Spielberg hit the ground running with Dennis Weaver in tow as David Mann, chosen for his portrayal of paranoia in Touch of Evil. The truck itself would be an ominous yet ever-present Peterbilt truck, dark and covered in shadow. This would be the piece’s villain that would haunt the audiences watching from their homes in 1971. Duel follows Mann going off to a business meeting with his boss. Yet, when attempting to pass a truck by, he makes an enemy for the remainder of his travel. The trip goes from a typical work day to a hellish living nightmare in broad daylight with paranoia and fright on full display.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is ready to play chicken against the beast that follows him. Source: Universal Pictures

Weaver nails the role, and the sense of danger and paranoia slowly encapsulates Mann. The cafe scene where he contemplates what he could have done to piss the driver off shows it to a tee. The focus here is Mann seeing the truck outside and determining who it could be in the cafe. He remembered he wore brown boots, but all the truckers had them. They also have denim jeans. This is the only detail he knows. This is also the only detail we know. This man is not someone we know outside of brief glimpses of his arm, legs, and feet. We are just as ponderous as Weaver is. His inner monologue drives it “What’ did I do? I was only trying to pass him.” 

Seeing this slow descent into paranoia can be white-knuckling at times. The confrontation that spurs from his anxious state only cements it. Mann squares up against a driver eating his lunch and thinks he has found the target. But no, he only gets into a scuffle after tossing the burger out of the driver’s hand. Finally, he is thrown out, only to see the truck sitting there, idly watching him as he makes his way to his car. 

This extends to his sweet moment of tranquility, being able to find a pass to stay and get a nap in. When he hears a horn blare, Mann wakes up in fright. When he realizes it’s only a train, he laughs in relief to continue driving, knowing that the pursuit has ended. Then it appears, once again, the truck that gave him a small moment of relief only to attach himself to his prey once more. The truck only toys with him so much so that the third act, a menacing chase filled with winding roads and radiator overheating, becomes an endless chase between cat and mouse.

The truck of nightmare comes barrelling down the highway. Source: Universal Pictures

The truck itself is a brutal sight. This is the vehicular equivalent of someone who has “been through the shit.” It looms large over the red Plymouth Valiant, a sweet ride for a mild businessman. The monster in of itself in look and design. It reminds me (here’s one for you Millennials out there) of Darkside from Twisted Metal, only with a gasoline trailer on its back. That’s even more horrific. If this truck were to ever be hit or crash, it would bring the chaos of fire and flames to whoever and whatever is in its path. Its blaring horn, something we’ve grown accustomed to, becomes a terrifying roar, a battle cry, or sorts to enhance its predatory behavior. 

Its final moments are where the film shines. The leading chase for it was magnificent, but the end, where the two finally come face to face, is near-perfect. Mann is cornered on a dead-end cliffside. This truck is determined to end Mann’s life by sending him over the edge. Except Mann is much more clever than that. He finds a way to trick the truck and escape, having the truck charge toward him as he bolts out of it. Finally, Mann is free as the beast is thwarted, down over the cliffside, disappearing and reappearing in a plume of smoke. It’s finally done for god in an explosion, but so is Mann’s car. 

This ending is phenomenal, with Spielberg showing the tension in the scenes, cutting to Weaver, drenched in sweat, waiting to make his next move. Seeing the destruction and aftermath up close and personal when it ends lets us know “It’s over” even before the blood is shown. It’s chaos on the surface, and it’s quiet. We get to see every bit and breath a sigh of relief that it’s finally over. Yet, where do we go from here? Does Mann hitch a ride? We don’t know the answer, and we don’t need to. We are satisfied that the nightmare is over for Mann and us.

A terrifying and brutal end of the road for both. Source: Universal Pictures

With Duel’s television success, it was brought overseas to the European market for the big screen with some extra scenes. These scenes are a fine addition but don’t lend much weight. The school bus scene, in retrospect, does not add much except showing the truck be a hero briefly (which diminishes tension). The other, in which the car pushes him towards the train tracks, is scary and tense but can take away from their actual face-off at the end. That’s the only detriment I can give the film in my eyes.

Duel cemented Spielberg as someone that could handle the big screen with his next idea, based on a real-life crime story, to be his first theatrical feature for Universal. That would be The Sugarland Express, which will be a first-time watch for yours truly. I’m beyond excited to hit the pavement again to see what it offers.

Revue Rating: 4 out of 5

Next time, Goldie Hawn and “Dickless” from Ghostbusters are ready to get their kid back from the foster care system in The Sugarland Express.

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