Duel (1971)

Posted: November 18, 2013 in Movie Review
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Duel (1971)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Dennis Weaver

There are a lot of maniacs out there on the road. All you want to do is get from your house to where you’re going without incident, but you can always rely on someone getting behind the wheel of a car and endangering the lives of all who cross their path. Who knows why they behave the way they do. It could be that they’re just stupid teenagers who like to drive as fast as their car will let them. Perhaps they’ve had a bad day, or they have a long way to go and no time to waste sitting behind traffic. Maybe you’ve set them off with an ill-conceived hand/finger gesture. Maybe they have a diabetic condition, or maybe they’re just drunk. Or, maybe, they might be a crazy person who is intent on killing you with their vehicle.

One particular madman’s intended victim is David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a California salesman who is driving down a two-lane highway with a meeting to attend. David will never reach that meeting. Instead, he’s about to spend his day trying not to be run off the road in his red 1971 Plymouth Valiant by an enormous tanker truck. When he first encounters the truck, he comes up behind it, but is blocked every time he tries to make a pass. Once, the driver of the truck gives him the signal to pass, but David only has seconds to react to keep from plowing head-on into an oncoming car. This guy, David knows, is more than just playing around with him. This guy means to murder him.

“Duel” was originally broadcast in the United States as a made-for-television movie. It was the first feature-length movie to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that guy really didn’t do much else with his career… In all seriousness, this movie (which is essentially one long 90-minute car chase sequence), shares much in common with one of the bigger financial successes of Spielberg’s long career, 1975’s “Jaws.” Both feature Hitchcockian soundtracks, this one by Billy Goldenberg (“Duel” is actually one of only two Spielberg films with someone other than John Williams as the score’s composer), and both see the everyman hunted by a ruthless predator. As stated, it was first a TV-movie, but when later released theatrically, the existing 74-minute print was deemed not long enough. Spielberg had to go back and shoot new scenes, including a new opening and terrifying scenes involving a school bus, a telephone booth and a railroad crossing. The latter two are some of the best scenes in the movie.

My two favorite scenes are just as intense. One occurs just after David has been run off the road and has struck a wooden fence, giving him a slight case of whiplash. He’s gone into the diner to cool off, but when he looks out the window he sees that the truck is parked just outside. This must mean that the man who has been chasing him has to be inside the diner with him! We follow David’s line of sight as he checks out all the patrons, hoping to find something familiar about their clothing as he’s never seen his assailant’s face. We know he’s not crazy, but we also know that there’s not a soul in that diner who has any reason to think otherwise. My other favorite scene comes when David is trying desperately to coax his car into climbing a hill. The radiator hose that he should have taken care of early on in his highway trek is now failing him. David’s helplessness is magnified by a great usage of wide-angle lens shots.

Dennis Weaver is remembered best for his role as Chester Goode, sidekick to James Arness’s Matt Dillon on the TV western series “Gunsmoke.” His turn as David Mann, a man who isn’t even the master of his own household yet must now learn how to survive on the road, is equally impressive. The 2001 horror movie “Jeepers Creepers” saw actors Justin Long and Gina Phillips playing a brother and sister duo involved in a scenario similar to that of David Mann’s plight… that is until the true nature of the driver is revealed. Smartly, we are never shown the driver nor given any hint as to his motivations in “Duel.” All we have to go on is that he has picked out David specifically, and a hint provided by the multiple license plates on the truck that, whomever this guy is, he has very likely done this to others before. Spielberg crafted the most imposing of all his villainous characters with the 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck. This is because it’s the most realistic. You’re more likely to encounter a truck like this in your daily life than you would be a Great White shark, aliens or dinosaurs. What’s more, the person behind the wheel is human, and human monsters are the scariest of all.


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