Duel (1971)

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Cast:  Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone 
Plot:  A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by a malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.

Genre:  Action / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Golden Globe - Best movie made for TV.
Runtime:  90min
Rating:  PG for some intense sequences.

While Jaws (1975) was said to have launched the Hollywood career of a young, risk-taking director named Steven Spielberg, and made the summer blockbuster a perennial, money-spinning feature in the cinematic calendar, it was Duel that first brought him to the public’s attention, and the radar of movie studio bosses.

Originally a telemovie that ran about seventy-odd minutes, Duel was turned into a feature length film with the addition of extra scenes that bloated it up to a solid ninety.  While technically not Spielberg’s first feature (that would be Sugarland Express, 1974), Duel is often cited as the film that set the wheels turning for the talented director.

After more than four decades, the wheels still continue to turn.  And as we look back at Duel, we remind ourselves that everything that is so special about Spielberg’s brand of cinema started out from a high-concept movie shot for the television.

Duel’s plot is as straightforward as it gets: a salesman who is driving across the desert gets tailed and terrorized by a massive oil tanker truck.  Throughout the entire film, we never get to see the face of the malevolent driver, but the ‘face’ of the monster truck as it comes bearing down on a nervous David Mann (Dennis Weaver) and his overworked car.

Spielberg not only showcases the kind of thrill-a-minute suspense that he perfected in Jaws, but deftly makes use of sound design, music, and low-angle camera placement to evoke psychological tension.  In a virtuoso scene, David is asleep in his car, when suddenly the loud engine roar of the truck with its horn blasting splits the hot, dry desert air, giving him a rude awakening.  He finds out that it is a passing locomotive that is travelling too close for comfort.

There is also a Spielbergian moment (at least we know on hindsight that it is one) when the truck stops in a tunnel, with David barely making out its silhouette.  It then flashes its headlights in a show of impending doom, like the eyes of a predator surveying its prey.

Duel ends spectacularly, well there is no other way to end a chase movie.  Spielberg gives us his money shot - a slow-motion long take that sees the truck meeting its end.  How it meets its end, I'll leave you to discover for yourself.

The entire film is well-paced, and if you think no further of Duel as an astute exercise in suspense filmmaking, you will be entertained, even if the plot takes a permanent backseat. Given only ten days to complete production, Spielberg toiled endlessly and insisted on shooting on location, and using real, moving vehicles instead of working in the studio.  The result is an authentic experience filled with high tension.   

Verdict: Duel sees a young Spielberg mastering the art of suspense filmmaking in this highly thrilling telemovie.


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