Steven Spielberg directs this high-velocity thriller about a motorist terrorized by an evil truck. Spielberg’s first full-length movie, Duel, helped jumpstart the director’s big-screen career, with a gripping, action-packed story hailed by critics as a film that “belongs on the classics shelf reserved for top suspensers” (Daily Variety). Dennis Weaver stars as the traveling salesman waging a desperate battle for survival after he is mysteriously singled out. praised for its deft use of relentlessly mounting psychological tension, Duel features one of the most uniquely terrifying “characters” in movie history: a massive, 40-ton truck with sheer menace. A few years later, the action of Spielberg’s blockbuster hit Jaws would echo Duel’s tale of a lone hero in a heart-stopping fight to the finish against a monstrous, inhuman foe.
The first time I ever heard of ‘Duel’, one of Steven Spielberg’s first films, was through my close friend JP, in high school. He had just watched it and he claimed it was the most boring movie he’d ever seen; he ranted at length about how pointless it was, how the whole film consisted of a guy driving around, being chased by a truck – a truck whose driver remained unseen.
The more he tried to convince me that it was a truly horrendous experience, that nothing could ever be as mundane as that picture was, the more I questioned his take on it, the more I was intrigued by the premise and what it would ultimately have to offer. After all, the notion of being stalked by a faceless, dangerous being is always scary, even if it’s only on the road. It actually sounded suspenseful to me. And to our other buddy, Rog.
So we rented the movie and watched it together, Rog and I intrigued to see just what ‘Duel’ was all about, and JP, intrigued to find out what we would think of it – he was surprised by our reaction to his critique and was convinced that we would eventually come to understand what he meant.
It was the most revelatory of experiences: not only did Rog and I quite like the film (perhaps myself more than he – I’m not quite sure now, so many years later), but it showed us just how much tension can be created with so little, how a terrific film doesn’t require big budgets or fireworks – that a good director armed with a good script can likely do almost anything; there are few excuses for bad filmmaking when one has the skill and savvy to overcome limitations.
It also highlighted how incredibly subjective experiences of all sorts could be. We all know this, and we knew it then. But, due to the fact that this was the lowest of the low for one person, whereas it actually played extremely well with the rest of us, it really put things in perspective. We discovered then just how polarized opinions could be. At least, it had that effect on me; I will always remember that movie precisely for this reason.
I think that I only saw ‘Duel’ that one time. If I’ve seen it since, it was at least 15 years ago – and I can’t confirm it because it feels like only a vague recollection. I had meant to see it again, but it took me many years to get the DVD – and even longer to eventually get around to watching it.
Still, despite the two decades that have passed and all the movies I’ve watched since, I’m pleased to discover that it hasn’t lost any of its power: ‘Duel’ remains a totally gripping film from start to finish. It’s the perfect example of a suspense film: its catches hold of you early on and manages to keep you riveted to your seat until the very last frames.
The beginning doesn’t suggest anything major at all, though. At first, we get a first-person perspective of our protagonist driving away from home in the morning and hitting the road. We are treated to a variety of scenery and locales, suggesting that he’s going on a long road trip. We don’t yet know why he’s out and about or even who he is (it takes a while before we actually see him), but there is no doubt that we’re on a journey.
It doesn’t take long before the mysterious trucker rears his/her ugly head and an ominous feeling permeates the film. Spielberg took the time to build up a feeling of danger by making the trucker seem irresponsible at first, a bully next, then deliberately putting both their lives at risk, to eventually making him seem psychopathic. By then, we share our protagonist’s assertion that the trucker is out to kill him. The reasons why, of course, remain unknown.
And that’s part of the genius behind ‘Duel’: not only do we not know who this stalker is, but we have no idea what his motive is. In as much as this works in all sorts of horror movies, especially in those with serial killers, it works to great effect in this film. In not knowing what the heck is going on and why, in only knowing that our protagonist is in mortal danger, we are thrown right into the car with him, worried about what lies in wait on the next stretch of road, at the next turn.
‘Duel’ may be predictable in some areas, but I was pleased to see that Spielberg hit all the right notes. Every time I tried to imagine what the most effective thing to do in a given sequence would be, Spielberg did it. He shaped the film methodically, building it up as though he had taken a blue print from the Master of Suspense. In fact, there were many times when I thought that it would have made a great late-period Hitchcock film; one could easily bundle it with ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Family Plot’.
In fact, I think that this was a conscious choice on Spielberg’s part, given that even Billy Goldenberg’s musical score echoed Bernard Herrmann’s music for such Hitchcock classics as ‘Psycho’ and possibly ‘Vertigo’ (I couldn’t exactly place some of the music, even though it was familiar ). It wasn’t always the case, but more so than not – especially with those strings that were an obvious nod to the shower scene in ‘Psycho’. Anyway, between Spielberg and Goldenberg, there was an unmistakable impression of watching a Hitchcock film.
The least effective part of the film for me, sadly enough, was the ending. The film was constructed in three parts of approximately 30 minutes each: the set-up, the paranoia, the confrontation. The first two were incredible because they were psychological and they were put together incredibly well. The third part, however, consisted mostly of action and devolved into a final “duel” of sorts that could only take place if the trucker was entirely out of his gourd; it was most certainly beyond reason.
Still, as an overall picture, I’d say that ‘Duel’ is a prime example of Steven Spielberg at his best, when he’s not busy making ginormous, overblown extravaganzas. It was a TV movie shot in about two weeks and IT forced the budding director to be ingenious in his approach. Quite seriously, I wish that he made more films like those instead of the blockbuster crap that he’s more keen on doing these days. Give him the bare minimum, and he’ll be challenged into cobbling together something quite impressive. Give him too much money, and you get ‘1941’ or an Indiana Jones sequel that dare not be mentioned by name.
‘Duel’ is imperfect, but it puts on display the mastery that Spielberg would soon make amply evident with ‘Jaws’, only a few short years later. It’s a tremendously thrilling 90 minutes of filmmaking that flies by at a pace and with an ease that most other films could only dare hope for. It’s a must-see for fans of Spielberg, psychological thrillers, or even road movies. Any of those people would find ‘Duel’ quite memorable for one reason or another.