By Marc S. Sanders
Duel – Steven Spielberg’s first full length film which he directed in 1971. While it was originally a television movie in the United States on the ABC network, the feature made its way to European cinemas after Universal requested that Spielberg shoot additional scenes to bring the running time up to at least ninety minutes. The final product still holds as a tight and intense depiction of nail biting, paranoid suspense.
The story couldn’t be simpler. A sales man (Dennis Weaver) driving a red Plymouth sedan across a never ending California highway comes up behind a grotesquely, offensive looking, smoking oil tanker. He takes it upon himself to pass the truck on the left to continue his journey to his next appointment, and either a road rage from the unseen truck driver, or just a need to play cat and mouse begins. No matter how fast and far the man’s car goes, the hulking, angry truck is terrorizing him to no end. The truck will tailgate the car, or cut it off, or even just wait silently up ahead as the car continues on its path. The salesman cannot understand the madness behind this unexpected scenario.
As a film lover, what’s most fun about Duel is easily recognizing Spielberg’s attempt of building fear within his audience. Steven Spielberg always has a unique approach to thrilling audiences. He believes that what you don’t see is scarier than what you look at plain as day. Like his eventual third feature film, Jaws with the submerged great white shark, along with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and the unknown aliens that are blinded out by colorful light, or the hidden dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and even Saving Private Ryan with the gear, grinding, at first unseen, German tank that occupies the final act of the film, with Duel you may get a look at the monster at play but you never get to meet the mind of the monster. At best all that you see of a sinister truck driver is his left arm waving out the window or his cowboy boots. Soon we learn that left arm is only baiting the salesman to drive into oncoming traffic destined for a violent collision. (The shark’s fin in Jaws teases its hunters into similar kinds of danger as well.) Otherwise, this mysterious truck driver has no dialogue, and expressions of evil come through close up and advance shots of the “face” the front of the truck seems to have with a long snout like extended hood for a nose/mouth and the dirty windshield for its eyes. This approach alone is what keeps you glued until you reach the picture’s climax.
After the man is driven off the road the first time, Spielberg depicts the protagonist’s fear with a long hand-held camera that follows him walking from his crashed car into a diner across the street, past folks eating lunch, into the wash room and then back out again, only to end the shot on the enemy truck resting outside the restaurant as if it is waiting for its new found prey. This truck is as scary as Spielberg’s shark or his dinosaurs. The film was made long before the age of Steadicam, and this moment serves as a masterful sequence. The poor guy is a stranger in an even stranger situation, and because none of us have seen what this terrorizing truck driver looks like, we are no wiser than this guy who is being victimized. A voiceover of his thoughts plays out where he tries to reason with himself if what he did is so bad, or perhaps it’s all over and this crazed driver will let him go on his way now, or which one of the men sitting at the counter could possibly be the driver of this rusted, greasy, metal monster. Even if he wanted to, the salesman can’t reason or negotiate with his new found enemy. The paranoia is very real.
Reading up on the background of Duel, many film critics and admirers seemed to have found certain symbolism with the film ranging from comparisons of status symbols of the car vs the truck, or between the two drivers. The salesman’s name is David Mann. Is this biblical perhaps, like David vs. Goliath? Plus his last name is so simple – Mann. Observers even took note of a small early scene where the salesman has a tiff with his wife over the phone. When he hangs up, the wife is long gone from his mindset and he’s left on his own to survive anything that comes his way. I, however, didn’t regard the picture with much depth other than that Spielberg shot a taut film in just 12 days. I didn’t need to look for much else. My heart was racing. My curiosity to see the truck driver stayed hungry and my need to know how or if this poor guy was ever going to escape this daylight nightmare persistently held strong.
As well, I was amazed at the camera work on display. No two shots of the vehicles appear the same. Spielberg positions his camera on a low moving motorized crane (first used in the film Bullitt) to keep pace with the truck for upward facing perspectives. He’s got overhead shots, perspectives from the rear and the sides and then of course the front with zoom close ups to bring a visual, frightful roar to the big rig. The Plymouth also has its own blend of camera work that’s very effective. Dennis Weaver as the salesman is seen looking in the rear-view mirrors. Spielberg captures paranoia from inside the car underneath the steering wheel looking up and next to the actor from the passenger side or from the back seat. He’s got close up shots of Weaver in sweat inducing paranoia. For a car chase picture, every sequence looks new and different from what you see earlier in the film. A young Steven Spielberg was always reinventing himself.
Though the film was made 50 years ago when the term “road rage” was not even thought of, the situation seems all too real and quite possible when watching it now. The man relies on telephone booths or stops at gas stations to try and help his situation. Not much good comes from that though. Had Duel been made today, the car driver would use his cell phone and he’d likely drop it by accident or the battery or signal would die. The point is at given moments in life, we are all left to our own devices and completely alone. On a lonely, endless highway help is not necessarily something to count on. Police cars are not to be found at any given moment. The man finds opportunities to see if locals or another passerby could help, but no one is so inclined. How often do you help a stranger that comes upon you on a desolate road? So, you are left to fend for yourself where a vicious beast need not concern itself with the boundaries of law or morals. The second half of Jaws would follow this theme as well. Out in the middle of nowhere with no one around, what do you do when it only comes down to you and the terror that hunts you?
I believe Duel is essential viewing for any film lover. More than standard schlock slasher films, Steven Spielberg’s film offered the new wave of presenting an effective thriller like Alfred Hitchcock had built his reputation on. There’s nothing supernatural in this film. This could happen at any given time. People face insurmountable bullies or challenges that are never welcome and the strength of ourselves is tested when we realize we need to overcome these obstacles alone, without a hand to hold or a guide to steer us to safety. It happens when we lose a loved one. It could happen in a boring office job when the work is piling on or during finals week in school or while driving on a lonely stretch of highway. When the challenge does occur though, and you are unfairly never given all of the facts, how will you react? What will you do?