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Steven Spielberg’s Duel – feature review

December 18, 2014


Spielberg’s arrival still remains an impressive achievement.

duel - truck

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his published short story. Starring Dennis Weaver. Years of release: 1971, 1973.     Running times: 74 minutes (TV) 90 minutes (Theatrical)

I first saw Duel at the drive-in with my parents way back in 1973, when I was eight years old and it has stayed with me ever since. So what better way to celebrate my 100th film review this week than to honor the movie which sparked my fascination with filmmaking all those years ago.

Essentially an extended 90 minute chase sequence, Duel tells the story of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) a hen-pecked everyman who finds himself on the open highway during a routine business trip – only to be indiscriminately targeted and terrorized by a homicidal truck driver hell-bent on running him off the road.

Duel was originally published in 1971 as a short story in Playboy magazine; inspired by an actual incident which was experienced first-hand by the story’s author; noted genre writer Richard Matheson (The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend) – on the day President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Matheson and a friend found themselves tailgated and ultimately forced off the road by an angry truck driver     who, Matheson surmised, may well have been enraged over Kennedy’s death.

The one thing people most remember from watching Duel is the fact we never see the truck driver’s face. We only ever see his hands on the wheel, shifting gears or tugging on the air horn cable – which is the way it is described in Matheson’s screenplay. Matheson’s idea of concealing the truck driver’s identity does two things. Firstly,       it creates the disturbing notion that evil needs no rhyme nor reason or backstory to exist – it just is. Essentially there is nothing to be gained from knowing the driver’s motivation for doing what he’s doing. As in life – bad shit just happens for no reason. This technique of concealing the antagonist’s backstory is something John Carpenter would employ to great effect with Michael Myers in Halloween (and something which Rob Zombie seems to have completely misunderstood with his Halloween remake). It’s so sad that today’s audiences seem to view ambiguity and mystery as being a sign of weakness and demand to have everything explained. Although to the canny observer, there are indeed clues which hint to the truck’s backstory. The half dozen car number plates fastened to the bumper could be seen as the trophies of past victims; hinting at the idea this homicidal rampage has been on-going and nation-wide in scope. And the grimy, bug-spattered, weather-beaten look of the truck itself also alludes to the idea this campaign of terror has been in progress for some time; perhaps even years.

duel - truck close up

The second thing the concealment of the truck driver’s identity does is it allows the truck itself to take on its own persona. With its belching smoke stack, elongated snout and the word FLAMMABLE painted ominously on its rear (like the markings of some dangerous animal) there is no denying the look of the vehicle is menacing in itself. But under Spielberg’s direction, this belligerent metal predator also appears to be consciously ‘aware’ of what it is doing. The way it lies in wait, engine growling, taunting Mann into action; before lashing out – horn blaring – makes it one of the most complex and terrifying non-human antagonists ever portrayed on screen.

SPOILER WARNING: the following paragraph contains details of the film’s ending.     So if you haven’t seen Duel and do not wish to have the ending spoiled for you – skip over the next paragraph.

This concept of personifying the truck as a living creature reaches its natural conclusion at the film’s climax; where Mann jams his briefcase on the gas pedal of his overheated car and leaps out at the last second – as the truck careens into it and plummets over a cliff; the sounds of crunching metal becoming a baleful, almost bestial death cry; as it crashes down in slow motion amid great plumes of dust into the desert valley below. As the dust finally settles (and a jubilant Mann looks on) – we see an eerie series of dissolves of the mangled wreckage; revealing the final death twitches of the truck; a dashboard fan in the cabin; the drip drip of diesel from   a severed fuel line (the life blood of the beast) and finally a turning wheel gradually slows to a stop; while shots of the truck driver’s body are noticeably absent.

duel - dennis weaver

Actor Dennis Weaver (best known to auds at the time for his title role in the popular TV series McCloud) gives an impressive, virtually solo performance here as the harried David Mann. Initially Weaver wanted to play the role in a more aggressive, take charge and heroic manner from the beginning. But Spielberg persuaded him to downplay to begin with – leaving room for him to reach that point towards the finale. As events escalate over ninety minutes, Weaver’s gradual transformation from vulnerable ineffectual victim to eventual victor is beautifully realized thanks to Weaver’s pitch-perfect performance.

Prior to helming Duel (at the age of twenty-four) Spielberg had cut his teeth in network television; having famously directed Joan Crawford in her television debut in the pilot episode of Rod (The Twilight Zone) Serling’s Night Gallery anthology series (Spielberg was just twenty at the time), as well as helming episodes of Marcus Welby MD and Columbo, among others. Spielberg was the youngest television director working for Universal (most of the other directors were in their mid-forties) having signed a seven year contract, but desperately wanted to make the leap into feature films. Duel was his first telemovie and he would subsequently direct two more, Something Evil and Savage, before finally getting his first fully-fledged big screen directing gig with the unfairly-ignored Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express in 1974. But it is Duel which rightfully garners (even today) the most praise of all of Spielberg’s offerings during these seminal years of his career.

As the sheer scale of location shooting was unprecedented for an American network telemovie at the time (it would in fact be the first telemovie shot entirely on location), the studio bosses were sceptical that Spielberg could achieve his vision within the allotted ten day shooting schedule. The studio (being mindful of the looming air date) preferred that Spielberg shoot all the car interiors on a sound stage using front-screen projection plates as backgrounds, but Spielberg (and rightly so) argued that the artificiality inherent in process photography would cast an unnecessary layer of unreality to the on-screen action and therefore dissipate the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The studio nervously acquiesced on the proviso that if Spielberg were to go even one day over schedule, he would have to shoot the car interiors back in LA. As it transpired, Spielberg did eventually go over schedule by several days, but the studio bosses were so impressed with the caliber of his footage, they happily granted the young director the extra time he required in order to complete the film the way he envisaged. Spielberg’s dogged determination to shoot everything for real is one of the reasons why Duel is such an immersive experience for the viewer. We actually feel like we are in the car with Dennis Weaver – thus heightening the whole experience. The austerity of the Southern Californian desert locations (primarily along Route 14 and Soledad Canyon Road) also creates a palpable sense of isolation – particularly in the film’s final moments. And the uniquely atonal and percussive score by Billy Goldenberg (which, remarkably, the composer only had two days to write) also perfectly heightens the tension. The climactic sequence where Mann is relentlessly pursued by the truck up a steep incline while his car overheats has got to be one of the most intensely nerve-racking sequences ever.

duel truck side view

In order to acquire the necessary variety of shots and angles to maintain excitement while adhering to the schedule, Spielberg was meticulous in his planning – using multiple cameras and even going so far as to having a gigantic mural created depicting the action of the entire film from a bird’s eye’s perspective – which took up most of the wall space of his motel room for the duration of the shoot. Using this overhead plan, Spielberg was able to map out exactly where he was to position his cameras to gain the extensive coverage he required. By virtue of having so many cameras running simultaneously, Spielberg ended up with over 20,000 feet of footage, which was well beyond the normal 8,095 feet usually acquired for an average ninety minute feature at that time. With only three and a half weeks from the end       of principal photography till the network air date, a team of five editors were charged to work simultaneously with the task of putting the film together.

All telemovies prior to Spielberg’s Duel (Duel being the 169th made up to that point) were essentially ‘movies’ in running time only; being mostly blandly-directed and flatly-photographed melodramas; with virtually zero cinematic qualities whatsoever. The enthusuastic viewer response to Duel, however, paved the way for subsequent theatrical-quality telemovies; including Brian’s Song, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Sybil; demonstrating that made-for-television didn’t necessarily have to mean bland and mediocre.

Two years following the initial air date in the US (as ABC’s Movie of the Week on November 13th 1971) fifteen minutes of additional footage was shot in order to expand the running time of Duel from 74 minutes to 90 – in preparation for its international theatrical release (the film wouldn’t have an official US domestic release in cinemas until a revival in 1983). The additional scenes include the opening title sequence where we see a POV shot taken from the front of Mann’s car – as it leaves his home, negotiates the streets of LA and turns onto the freeway, before hitting the open road. Another added (and admitedly superfluous) scene is a phone conversation Mann has with his wife – from her end. Spielberg initially objected to the addition of this scene (penned by the film’s producer George Eckstein) but shot it anyway – as it meant the film would be guaranteed a theatrical release. The standout addition though is the railway crossing scene; where Mann suddenly finds himself being nudged by the truck into the path of an oncoming freight train – arguably one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film.

duel - train crossing

Duel was screened theatrically across Western Europe, Japan and Australia (which     is how I originally got to see it) and made $7 million during this initial run of engagements (which, on a budget of $450,000, was a fairly sizable return, much to Universal’s complete surprise). More tellingly though, Spielberg was immediately hailed by the European film establishment as a visionary filmmaker and potential successor to Alfred Hitchcock – as there are indeed aesthetic and tonal similarities between Duel and the celebrated crop duster sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – particularly in the meticulous building of atmosphere and the escalation of tension and suspense in broad daylight. Spielberg had initially hoped to have virtually no dialogue at all; relying almost entirely on telling the story via camera, sound and editing. But the studio baulked at this. The young director acquiesced, but did manage to pare down the dialogue in Matheson’s script quite considerably – so there are no more than forty or so lines of dialogue in the entire movie. It is partly this ‘pure cinema’ aspect which impressed the Europeans. Italian critics in particular also loved what they saw in the film as poltitical allegory of the class struggle between the down-trodden masses and the all-powerful establishment; social commentary which Spielberg consistently denied was ever intended. Spielberg himself always saw the film (as did Matheson) as the straightforward tale of an ordinary man – numbed by     the comfort of a safe suburban life – who is forced to rediscover his primal instincts   in order to survive. This idea of an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances (also a favored theme in Matheson’s stories) would become a constant in Spielberg’s subsequent films; most notably in Jaws, Close Encounters     of the Third Kind and to a lesser degree, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There is a youthful exuberance to Spielberg’s initial theatrical output; from Jaws       to Close Encounters to 1941 and Raiders and it is also clearly in evidence here. Spielberg has since conceded that the youthful vigor of Duel is most definitely a result of the age he was when he made it and that he would be hard-pressed these days to imbue the film with the same reckless abandon if he were to make it today.

Spielberg’s Duel is a remarkable film in many ways (and not just on a technical level). It is a simple tale well told and a truly immersive and visceral experience which is profoundly involving; which is why it remains my favorite of Spielberg’s films and indeed one of my favorite films of all time.

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → feature articles

  1. You picked a cool film for your 100th review.

    Its about time this got a Blu-ray release outside of that Spielberg box collection. I want to rewatch this again but I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for all those Spielberg films again that I already own on Blu-ray.


    • gregory moss permalink

      That Spielberg box set – it has 1941 and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS included yeah? As I have neither of these films on Blu – I’d actually be happy to buy it if it has these too.


      • Yep it has those two, and I’d certainly be buying them standalone, but I also have a fondness for another film in the box- Always. While its over-sentimental and definitely a throwback to old Hollywood, I really quite liked it at the cinema and think its not bad at all. These box-sets are fine but shouldn’t stop individual releases coming out. Guess they will do eventually but Universal seems to be taking its sweet time about it.


      • gregory moss permalink

        ALWAYS … gee – now there’s a Spielberg film which has been virtually forgotten … I’ll have to add it to my list for a rewatch. And 1941 has one of the best directed scenes in any Spielberg movie – the USO jitterbug dance contest sequence. I know this film gets a lot of flak (pun intended) – but it I’ve loved it ever since seeing it in the theater back in the day … perhaps this box set should be re-titled ‘Spielberg Movies Which Deserve More Love’ …


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