‘The most bizarre murder weapon ever used!’
Duel is a 1971 horror thriller feature film directed by Steven Spielberg (Jaws; producer of Poltergeist) from a screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his short story, originally published in Playboy magazine and based on his real-life experience of being tailgated by a big truck in 1963.
The movie stars Dennis Weaver (What’s the Matter with Helen?; Don’t Go to Sleep) as a terrified motorist stalked on a remote and lonely road by the mostly unseen driver of a mysterious tanker truck.
Following Duel ’s successful TV airing, Universal released the film overseas in 1972. Since the TV movie was not long enough for theatrical release, Spielberg spent two days filming several new scenes, turning Duel into a 90-minute film. The new scenes were set at the railroad crossing, school bus, and the telephone booth. A longer opening sequence was added with the car backing out of a garage and driving through the city. Mild expletives were also added, to make the film sound less like a television production.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a middle-aged Los Angeles electronics salesman driving his red 1971 Plymouth Valiant sedan on a business trip. On a two-lane highway in the California desert, he encounters a grimy and rusty 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck, travelling slower than the speed limit and expelling thick plumes of sooty diesel exhaust [ironically actor Weaver was a noted environmentalist in real life].
Mann passes the unsightly truck, which promptly roars past him and then slows down again. Mann is unmoved, passing the truck a second time, and is startled when it suddenly issues a long air horn blast…
Duel tells the story of David Mann (Dennis Weaver). The name is probably not a coincidence. David is an “everyman,” if your idea of an everyman is a workaholic who is incapable of expressing his emotions. He is driving through the California desert.
When he calls his wife (apparently, he left home in the morning without ever bothering to wake her), he tells her that he’s on a strict schedule and that he might lose an important sale if he’s delayed in any way. You get the feeling, however, that David’s trip is less about business and more about a desire to get away from his life. His conversation with his wife is strained and, when we watch him interact with a gas station attendant, we’re struck by how awkward David is.
Indeed, the only time that David seems to be really comfortable and relaxed is when he’s safely inside of his car. When we first see him, he’s listening to a radio talk show and occasionally commenting on what he’s hearing. David Mann has a better rapport with an unseen talk show host than he does with his own family.
Later, in the film, David is flagged down by a school bus that has stalled on the side of the road. The bus driver asks David to give him a push. For his part, David reacts with visible panic at the sight of several hyperactive children rushing towards his car. When they hop on his hood, David starts to frantically order them off. It makes sense really. The car is what he loves.
Of course, it’s not just bratty children that David has to deal with. There’s also a gigantic truck travelling up and down the highway. When David gets stuck behind the truck, he honks his horn. He yells at the unseen driver. He passes the truck at one point, just to have the truck promptly pass him so that it can continue to block him. When the driver finally does motion for David to pass him, David changes lanes just to discover another car coming straight at him.
The truck’s driver, it turns out, wants to kill David. Why does he want to kill David? We’re never quite sure. For that matter, we’re never quite sure what the truck is transporting, beyond the fact that it’s apparently flammable. Yet the brilliance of Duel is that it doesn’t matter why the truck’s driver is trying to kill David. All that matters is that he’s determined to do so.
And David — the man who can’t even figure out how to have a conversation with his wife — must now try to figure out how to defeat a seemingly unstoppable predator…
Today, Duel is best known for being Steven Spielberg’s first film. Watching Duel (and Jaws, for that matter) it’s easy to imagine an alternative universe where, instead of becoming America’s best-known creator of mainstream entertainment, Spielberg instead became one of America’s best horror director. Duel is a suspense-filled thrill ride, one that’s scary because it remains rooted in reality. Seriously, who hasn’t gotten nervous when they’ve found themselves sharing the road with a gigantic truck?
On a personal level, Duel is scarier than Jaws. Living in Dallas, it’s not like I have to worry about getting attacked by a shark. On the other hand, I drive my car nearly every day.
Dennis Weaver plays the archetype of what would become the typical Steven Spielberg protagonist and he does an excellent job in the role. Weaver is on screen throughout the entire movie. We see the entire story unfold through his eyes and Weaver gives a harrowing performance as a man who is slowly but steadily pushed to the verge of a breakdown by an enemy that he cannot even begin to comprehend.
If you haven’t seen Duel, you need to.
“Much like Carpenter’s brilliant Halloween (1978), the pure simplicity of Duel’s structure and presentation permits the engaged viewer to layer on additional meanings and connections; to see more lurking beneath the hood, as it were, than the elegant screenplay literally expresses on the surface. In this manner, Duel goes from being a basic tale of inexplicable road rage and survival to something infinitely more symbolic; a meditation on fate, and on Evil itself.” Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV
“Matheson’s script provides a sturdy framework of steadily increasing stakes with deft exposition and remarkably little padding and provides just enough detail about the protagonist that we understand who he is and relate to his struggle. David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is written in broad, archetypal strokes, but he still seems recognizably human; and there’s slyness in the way Duel tackles its themes of male aggression and identity.” CHUD.com
“The sure eye of Spielberg is evident from the first as he captures some of the best car-chase footage ever staged. He also keeps the story gripping throughout its entire 90 minutes, despite the slender theme. He may have gone on to make Hollywood blockbusters but the modest Duel remains one of Steven Spielberg’s most accomplished and memorable films.’ David Tappenden, Fright Films
“The allegory in Duel is something Spielberg leaves for us to decide. By not revealing much about the characters or their conflict, he paradoxically breathes life into them because they represent primal tensions between city and country residents and white- and blue-collar workers. Two other conflicts emerge as well: business vs. industry and man vs. machine. However, determining their messages is confusing. These tensions collide into an allegorical Armageddon that literally ends on the side of a road.” Classic-Horror.com
“An excellent B flick that doesn’t overstay its welcome and keeps you at watching, Duel lives up to its reputation as a good movie … and extremely excellent TV movie.” A Wasted Life
“This is basically a first-person drama/thriller but it’s certainly a riveting one that plays out to a satisfying conclusion while lots of memorable moments (the best on is the tense “café” scenes that contain some effective internal monologues by Weaver’s character).” The Video Graveyard
“Everything I ever read or heard about Steven Spielberg’s feature-length directing debut was that it was a masterpiece, but after finally seeing it, I beg to differ. While it is technically well made and has one or two moments of genuine suspense, for the most part it’s rather ho-hum.” The Video Vacuum
Cast and characters:
- Dennis Weaver as David Mann
- Jacqueline Scott as Mrs. Mann
- Carey Loftin as The Truck Driver
- Eddie Firestone as Café owner
- Lou Frizzell as Bus Driver
- Eugene Dynarski as Man in café
- Lucille Benson as Lady at Snakerama
- Tim Herbert as Gas station attendant
- Charles Seel as Old man
- Shirley O’Hara as Waitress
- Alexander Lockwood as Jim, Old man in car
- Amy Douglass as Old woman in car
- Sweet Dick Whittington as Radio interviewer
- Dale Van Sickel as Car Driver
- Shawn Steinman as Girl on School Bus (uncredited)