Duel is the best TV movie ever made by a first-time film director in 13 days with practically no dialogue that isn't one guy talking to himself. More importantly, it's also one of the supreme chase movies of all time. (Plus, it has about thirty posters and all of them are just awesome.)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Richard Matheson (based on the short story)
With Dennis Weaver ft. Dale Van Sickle (David Mann) and Cary Loftin (The Truck Driver)
Spoiler alert: severe
It's hard to discuss Duel as its own entity. Any attempt to do so would amount to spiteful refusal to simply say, "Fine, Duel was the first feature-length work of the man who would soon enough become one of the most important filmmakers we've ever had." (Don't say it with that precise phrasing, however; technically, the honor goes to a 90-minute episode of The Name of the Game.) Though less obscure than it once was, it's largely because of Steven Spielberg's legacy that Duel has survived with such fitness in the pop cultural consciousness—quickly, name another ABC Movie of the Week. But the subsequent fame of Duel's director has resulted in an unfairness. It permits Duel to be condescended to as a demonstration of promise, when it deserves to be cherished as the thing it is.
Let's talk about David Mann and the truck that tried to kill him.
And if that bite-sized capsule were the only plot summary I ever offered, you'd still have no right to complain. Duel is an exercise in purity.
David is a salesman, though of what we never learn. Before we see his face, we see his life in a series of point-of-view shots while the opening credits play: an endless series of fades from one anonymous location to another as he travels the countryside. There's nothing appealing about David's sorry state, his salaryman loneliness contrasted with the briefest snapshot of his dysfunctional home life. That's dominated by his pre-feminist wife, who emasculates him over the telephone for failing to violently confront another man, over what she calls being "practically raped" at the previous night's dinner party. We strongly suspect she's describing a clumsy drunken pass that probably didn't involve even incidental contact, but we also know that the 70s were Hell, so it's anyone's guess.
We'll be bound to David's perspective virtually the entire film, with but one moment that puts us in the eyes of the thrillkilling trucker who's taken it upon himself to punish David for nothing more than passing him on the highway, or—when you really get down to it—just existing in the first place. For 90 minutes, David struggles to survive the trucker's torments, ranging from playful attacks to attempted murders to ignominious humiliations. David's deliriously outmatched; for nearly the entire film he can do nothing but react, nearly finding his very spirit broken. But at the last moment, as the trucker moves to end his deadly game, David finds steel at the bottom of his mushy soul, a capacity for violence that finally allows him to strike back.
Yes, that surname is terribly symbolic, and it's probably best not to think about it.
Duel began life, as so many of us did, with someone reading Playboy and getting an idea. However, unlike your bored dad, Duel arose not from dirty pictures, but Spielberg 's perusal of a short story by the great Richard Matheson. Known best for his science fiction and horror, Matheson took this story from life. As his own tale goes, on the day of Kennedy's assassination, a trucker tailgated him for miles, finally running him off the road. Dumbfounded by the act's senselessness, Matheson cannily recognized it as what it was: the most preposterously elegant premise for a thriller anyone could devise.
Spielberg learned that Matheson already had a screenplay entering production at his employer, and he lobbied for and got the gig. He then sought out Dennis Weaver, on the strength of his turn as an annoying paranoiac in Touch of Evil years earlier. It proved to be an inspired casting decision after all—Weaver is phenomenal at creating an everyman so pathetic that he's difficult to like, yet so blameless that you root for him anyway.
He was also possessed of a simply wonderful disregard for his own life.
Of course, Spielberg's paymasters weren't likely to have any problem with the star of McCloud deigning to be in their little picture. But Spielberg did demand one major concession, most vital to Duel's success. Duel was shot all on location, in rural California, with literally almost nothing done at the studio but the editing, a task completed in three weeks by no fewer than nine talented editors and a harried Spielberg wrangling their work into lithe cinema.
Though gimmicked here and there, everything in Duel is real. Many films in the coming years would offer more complex, more death-defying, and, admittedly, more impactful vehicular stunts—look no further than Spielberg's own Raiders of the Lost Ark—but there remains an immediacy to Duel that no other car chase film would achieve for thirty-eight full years, with the release of Quentin Tarantino's unsurpassable Death Proof. There's a single-mindedness to Duel's highway warfare that even this past weekend's Fury Road doesn't reach, amped up by chase camerawork that amazes, coming from an allegedly nascent talent.
I don't make reference to George Miller on a whim. The thematic underbelly of Matheson's script, baldly stated in Weaver's voiceover, is his return to "the jungle"—whether David intends a reference to service in Vietnam, or a metaphor for savagery more generally, we'll never know. Duel takes place beyond the reach of civilized society. Many of the other famed chase-heavy films of the era—Bullitt, The Seven-Ups, Gone in 60 Seconds—set their tales in urban milieus. (And only 60 Seconds manages anything close to the sustained vehicular action of Duel, primarily by virtue of being less than a narrative film than a deranged work of outsider art.) Vanishing Point, the same year, took place in the same Californian hinterland; but its enigmatic elegy to a kind of self-abnegating masculinity puts it closer to pretentious weirdies like The Swimmer than what we think of as a proper chase film.
Naturally, what I think of as "proper" is defined largely by Duel, anyway.
But eight years later, the Australian would pick up Duel's existentialist themes of isolation and survival through madness and run with them. Now, it's far too much to say that Mad Max and The Road Warrior could not exist without Duel—but they follow it much too perfectly for me to believe there's no influence at all.
And, to give him credit where I can, Bill Goldberg's score, part Bernard Hermann, part machine-noise, part just bonkers, is experimental for any chase film of its vintage (and positively radical for a TV movie).
In one regard Duel might be absolutely unique. It grounds its action in the realism of mediocrity, starting with its victim, a man who admits that it takes every ounce of concentration he has just to keep his car over 70. The vehicle is just as conventional as its driver. It's an off-the-lot Plymouth Valiant—a decent, even relatively powerful sedan, and surely the most prosaic automobile ever to have a 90 minute chase built around it. The sole nod to any "cool car" necessity is the stab wound of its red paintjob on the brown backdrop of the inland wilderness. No other chase film I know of attempts what Duel does—asking us to identify with a pitiable hero defined totally by a lack of skill and spine, afraid to drive his lame car to its meager limits, limits which are harder than he thinks, because he doesn't even properly maintain the engine his life depends on.
But if David and his Valiant are dull, it is only to make the contrast with their nemesis absolutely overwhelming. The trucker's face is never seen (barring a few obvious accidents). We spy his boots, leading to a disastrous case of mistaken identity. We see his sunburnt arm, giddily waving David into oncoming traffic. Nothing more.
This anonymity—present in Matheson's script—might already have been enough to make Duel's villain suitably spooky. Yet the machine David actually faces—it's what Lovecraft might have imagined if he'd created Transformers. Spielberg didn't care about David's car as long as it was red, but when offered a choice between four trucks, he was captured immediately by this quarter century-old Peterbilt tanker. Its bulbous forward engine protruded like a snout; its windows were black like hollowed eyes; its exhaust constantly billowed filthy smoke. By the time Duel's art team was done with their work—streaking the abomination with grease from every vent, smashing insects like sociopathic children across its grille, smearing its windows with dirt—it looked even worse, as if its primary structural component was rust, and it was powered not by diesel but lost souls. In the film's most inspired design touch, Spielberg arrayed its front bumper with license plates from a half-dozen states—a subtle suggestion that it has murdered its way across America. Most terrifying of all, the tanker is much too fast for what it is, its nearly supernatural celerity prefiguring slasher movies, and to the same purpose. Truly, Duel's truck is one of cinema's most memorable vehicles, but it deserves more praise than that—it's one of cinema's greatest villains. Not bad for a 26 year old hunk of rotting metal that reads "FLAMMABLE" across its ass, twice, yet never explodes.
And you can't escape this guy just by doing the sensible thing and staying out of the ocean.
Duel is exclusively a chase. But the action never becomes repetitive; it has its slower moments, that either pursue suspense (as in the diner scene) or offer false haven (as when David believes he's outsmarted his enemy, and takes a nap, only to find the truck waiting for him, like a patient predator). There is, if one really wishes to be critical (though I obviously don't), a certain contrivance to the proceedings: Duel is effectively a series of individually inventive set-pieces that could be put in just about any order, waiting for the spectacle of the climax, the fatal game of chicken where David jams the accelerator down with his salesman's briefcase, crashes his Valiant into the truck, and sends the blinded behemoth plummeting straight off a cliff. (This impression must be more intense in the only version of the film I've ever been able to see, the theatrical cut, which adds scenes almost entirely for the sake of adding runtime.)
But the set-pieces are all individually inventive; and that climax is a spectacle. Beginning with the showiest, jumpiest editing of the entire film and ending bluntly and unsentimentally with a supernova sunset, the sequence features also what is possibly the most well-filmed crash in film history. Yet if it were composed by anybody, it could only have been God.
Spielberg had turned the walls of his motel room into a collage of maps—an early form of storyboarding—highly conducive to a well-controlled shoot that depended crucially upon real-world geography. This ultimate scene, however, could not be controlled at all. A half-dozen cameras were set up for coverage of the truck's death ride, which could only be filmed once. By unbelievable fortune, a single camera operator captured the entire fall in one take; by even more unbelievable fortune, the hulk bounces, reemerging from the obscuring dust one last time before settling.
Spielberg, possibly made insane by the rigors of the shoot, added a dinosaur roar. Metallic as it is monstrous, Goddamn but it works.
I'm fond of tweaking the noses of anyone bored enough to read these things—you may have heard me claim that Duel is its maker's finest work. This is intellectually dishonest (I haven't seen his entire filmography), and it also reveals how much I enjoy the taste of both my own feet (sometimes I forget that actual human hands had something to do with a certain trilogy that might as well be divinely-inspired). Let's dial back the hyperbole, but not too much. Duel represents an unalloyed triumph: Spielberg practically invented the blockbuster; he has spent billions to make billions; we can still say that one of his best films was also his smallest.
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