Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, and Eddie Firestone
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You just never know...you just go along figuring some things don't change, like being able to drive on a public highway without someone trying to murder you."
Richard Mathesonís oeuvre boasts well over a hundred works, but Duel must have been among the most personal to the recently deceased authoróquite literally. As recounted by the man himself, the story was inspired by a harrowing incident where he and a friend were briefly harassed by a truck driver. That it occurred on the day of John Kennedyís assassination seems appropriate since the story immediately captures Americaís post-JFK morass: the confusion, the fear, the inexplicable evil. Matheson distilled into something primal, a conflict between man and a relentless man-made machine that reflected the overarching fear that something both natural and unnatural was out to get even the common everyman.
Over the next several years, things only got worse, of course, and it may have resonated even more once America entered the 70s fully shed of its innocence. By that point, Duel had been published in Playboy and eventually found its way into the lap of Steve Spielberg, a college drop-out whoíd been hanging around and interning at Universal for a few years. Having already directed some television episodes for the studio, he convinced Universal to adapt the novelette for an ABC Movie of the Week. No one could have known it at the time, but it ended up being a perfect match since Spielberg would go on to become one of the decadeís most prominent directors when it came to relaying that struggle against the current, a motif that would especially repeat throughout his early work.
Itís stripped to the bare essentials in Duel, which finds L.A. salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) in the middle of a business trip thatís routine to the point of being mundane as he drifts down the highway as talk radio chatters in the background. When an enormous tanker truck appears in front of him, he maneuvers around it innocently enough, but the act unwittingly awakens something sinister in the truckís driver, who decides to start toying with David. The interplay starts out innocuously, with the two passing each other on the highway; however, when David decides to pull over at a gas station and the tanker follows suit, it becomes obvious that the driver has some darker intentions in store.
Even without its subtext, Duel is a meticulously crafted thriller that features Spielberg going full-on Hitchcock. Such a comparison is perhaps too easy and obvious given the glaring touchstones: a wrong man, a pursuit, the inevitable, inescapable evil at the core (talk about really capturing the uncertainty of the 60sóboth Psycho and The Birds were pre-JFK but revealed that Hitch had sensed the darkness that would soon creep into cinema). But Duel is specifically Hitchcockian in Spielbergís ability to craft white-knuckle suspense through masterful camerawork and even more masterful editing. From the beginning, it was obvious that he knew exactly where to place the camera and how long each shot should linger. The chase scenes here represent a master-class in minimalist suspense-building; armed with only a threadbare premise, one actor, a camera, and Billy Goldenbergís channeling of Bernard Herrmann, Spielberg constructed one of cinemaís great cat-and-mouse games and opened the gates for similar highway horrors.
Itís also easy to see how it could have been undone in lesser hands. Duel teeters on quite a precipice, as its leanness can be both a boon and a curse; itís a story that thrives on that inexplicable evil at its centeróthe driverís intentions (or, hell, his very existence) are never confirmed. Calling him a maniac might even be misguided since that would attribute too much of a human quality; instead, this thing is a relentless force of nature, armed with inhuman patience and a total disregard for either Davidís safety or his own. Itís basically the shark from Jaws or Michael Myers with a fuel tank, and thereís something playful about him that particularly anticipates Carpenterís Shape (for example, the driver does assist a stalled school bus before promptly resuming his pursuit). Obviously, that idea is appealing, but itís not exactly a slam dunk when stretched out over 90 minutes, but Spielberg makes it work because the tanker becomes an enigma shrouded in plumes of exhaust. Ironically enough, it does begin to take on a personality, and you can start to feel a menace in those headlights, which act as windows to a twisted, impenetrable 40-ton soul. Whereas Spielberg would create menace through absence in Jaws, he does the opposite here by forging the tanker into a monolith of unrelenting carnage, a modern abyss on 18 wheels.
Specifically, itís targeted this guy David Mann, whose on-the-nose surname posits him as the modern everyman suddenly besieged by an inescapable situation. Weaver begins as coiffed and confident behind the wheel but soon begins to unravel once he realizes what heís caught up in. To ensure that the film doesnít stall when itís briefly off-road, Spielberg stages a sweaty, claustrophobic sequence in a dusty, roadside dive where Mann frantically seeks a means of escape. While Weaverís performance acts as a solid chronicle of a man put through the ringer, the character also allows viewers to project various subtexts and themes. By his own admission, Matheson meant for Mann to be an everyman, but Spielberg specifically molds him into a specifically ineffectual 70s leading man. Cut from the same cloth as David Sumner and Chief Brody, Mannís surname soon refers to his very masculinity when a phone call home turns into an argument after his wife berates him for not standing up to an oaf that was ďpractically rapingĒ her at a recent party (the scene comes complete with two kids playing in the foreground, so thereís your requisite Spielbergian absent father stuff to boot). Suddenly, his looming conflict takes on an even deeper meaningónot only is he fighting for his survival, but heís also looking to reclaim his manhood in the face of violence. Weaver is a far cry from a square-jawed, dashing badass because he quite frankly looks like hell and reluctantly accepts that heíll have to stare down this force and confront it.
Spielberg would later become associated with a spirited Old Hollywood approach as his career wore on, but thereís a slight darkness skirting around the edges of Duel. This is most obviously felt in its ending, which is a triumphant one thatís still shadowed by Mannís creeping realization that this ordeal has shaken him. While itís not as subversive or ambiguous as similar 70s revenge fables like Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left, itís not exactly as exuberant as Chief Brodyís exultant celebration, which finds him safely paddling back to the shore. Instead, Duel leaves its protagonist stalled on the side of the road, contemplatively staring off into the sunset, a closing image that suggests the crossroads at which America found itself. Essentially, Duel is a road movie where the road has mutated from an airy sanctuary to a terrifying, claustrophobic hell thatís constantly forcing Mann to confront the modern malaise in the form of radio chatter, tourist traps, and his own inevitable doom. Even if the driver isnít successful, thereís something sinister about it being an instrument of sheer mortality (Lucio Fucli would make this subtext the text of Door into Silence 20 years later). If Easy Rider represented the sudden death of 60s blacktop frontier, then Duel was one of its earliest wakes, as the road is immediately presented as the path out of the comforts of suburbia into a wild, untamed wilderness where death lurks.
Maybe itís just the retroactive bullshit powers of the auteur theory kicking in, but it seems pretty obvious where Spielberg was headed from here. His behind-the-scenes confidence is well-known (he may have been the most brash of the New Hollywood bunch), and it spills onto the screen here. Each moment feels expertly rigged and calculated, and, even after Spielberg went back to pad out the running time for a theatrical re-release, itís still a lean, precise movie. Spielberg himself has noted that the kernel of Jaws is especially here, and itís a reminder that he could have been a hell of a horror master had he stuck to that genre (he did direct Something Evil, another made-for-TV horror thatís sadly never surfaced). Duel took a while to pop up on DVD itself, as Spielberg didnít get around to approving it for release until 2004, at which point Universal gave it a special edition treatment that features the 90-minute theatrical cut. The presentation retains the original 1.33 ratio (an oddity itself in the Spielberg canon) and the original 2.0 mono track; remixed 5.1 Dolby and DTS tracks also appear to offer a more robust soundstage. Extras include a photograph gallery, a trailer, production notes, bios for the cast and crew, and interviews with Spielberg and Matheson. I feel like Iíve extolled the virtues of the former a lot here, but it shouldnít come at the expense of the latter. Without Mathesonís clever hook and his commitment to keying in on such a primal conflict, Duel wouldnít be what it is, and one could argue that the same might be true of Spielbergís career. Imagine that: the history of film hinged on a chance encounter with an issue of Playboy. Itís a good thing Spielbergís assistant read it for the articles. Buy it!
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