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Dennis Weaver in Duel, 1971

From the video case: A traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) is suddenly menaced on the highway by a huge diesel truck. Although he can never see the psychopathic driver of the truck, he soon realizes that this guy is out to kill him! Duel is a classic of the action-suspense genre which helped launch the career of director Steven Spielberg. (1971, color)

Mark says: After seeing Duel for the first time as a child, I had sore muscles from tensing up so often. Thank God for commercials, or I may have petrified permanently. Viewing the film as an adult, I am still struck by how much suspense Mr. Spielberg conjures with a simple story and sparse dialog.

Duel was originally a 74 minute made-for-TV movie that later, with added footage, became a cinematic film distributed throughout Europe. Spielberg cast Dennis Weaver in the lead role of David Mann after seeing him in the movie, Touch of Evil. Of course, most of us fondly remember Mr. Weaver as Chester from the old Gunsmoke TV series, or as the title character in TV’s McCloud.

David Mann is a modern day Everyman. He’s bound to his job, trudging through life in a mood of quiet desperation. David is an emasculated figure who, throughout the course of the movie, is taunted by children, berated by his wife, and laughed at by yokels at a truck stop. We get the feeling that he has not had a good day in a long time. The 1970 red Plymouth Valiant that he drives seems to be an extension of his inadequacy. Weaver plays the part superbly, and though we find him more than a little pathetic, we can’t help but root for him. After all, he’s more like us than we’d care to admit.

The antagonist of the story is a Peterbilt 351 tanker truck. Sure, the truck has a driver (stuntman and character actor, Carey Loftin), but we never get a clear look at him. We see one of his arms, and a glimpse of his boots, but it’s the truck itself that seems to be the real entity. It roars and groans and attacks with the fury of a true monster. It also moves with seemingly supernatural speed. Thanks to this movie, I’m still uncomfortable when a truck pulls up behind me while I’m stopped at a railroad crossing.

We never learn the reason for the truck driver’s attack on Mr. Mann, nor do we learn of his identity, but ultimately, these things are not important. What is important is that David Mann has come up against a problem he can’t ignore, and if he doesn’t face it, he will pay with his life. Mann encapsulates a primary theme of the film when he says:

Well, you never know…you just never know. You just go along figuring some things don’t change ever, like being able to drive on a public highway without someone trying to murder you. And then one stupid thing happens. Twenty, twenty-five minutes out of your whole life, and all the ropes that kept you hanging in there get cut loose, and it’s like, there you are, right back in the jungle again.

This is a theme Spielberg would come back to often: an ordinary man trapped in an extraordinary situation.

You would think a movie about a truck chasing a man down would get dull after awhile, but it never does. Spielberg builds suspense so masterfully, we seldom get a chance to feel bored, or even relaxed. The off the road scenes are just as suspenseful. I especially enjoy the segment at Chuck’s Cafe where Mann tries to determine which truck driver is the psychopath trying to kill him. It’s filled with such tension that we get the feeling Mr. Mann has gone a tad insane. There’s also some wonderful campesque dialog that will surely elicit a smile or two.

The final chase scene is unbelievably tense. I remember yelling at the TV when I was a kid, “Go, go, GO!” Weaver is completely convincing in his panic, and for a few moments we feel he is not going to make it. When he does triumph, we experience his elation and relief with him. We are left with a sense that by conquering this problem, he’ll have more control over his everyday life, too. Which, in a strange way, is kind of inspiring.

The “death” of the truck is an unforgettable moment. It’s filmed in slow-motion, so every ounce of satisfaction is drawn out of it. This has to be one of my all-time favorite monster death scenes.

While doing internet research on Duel, I was pleased to find that it is held in high regard by both fans and critics alike. As a side note, I wonder what Spielberg could produce today if he was forced to work with the same budget ($375,000) and time constraints (2 weeks).

The screenplay was written by Richard Matheson (The Night Stalker, The Incredible Shrinking Man), and based on his short story of the same name. Matheson states that the story was inspired by a road rage incident that occurred shortly after the JFK assassination.

Duel was Steven Spielberg’s feature-length directing debut.

Scene to watch for: Dennis Weaver knocks a sandwich out of the hand of the wrong man.

Line to listen for: “He’s got some, some, some souped up diesel.”

Trivia: The roar of the truck as it crashes down the canyon was taken from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon. Spielberg would use the roar again in the movie, Jaws. Listen for it as the shark sinks at the conclusion of the film.

Bonus: The Wikipedia entry for Duel.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

7 Comments

  1. My Name Is Mike I’m 35 Yrs Old, I First Caught This Movie On Tv In The Late 70s, I Still Think Duel Is One Of The Best Movies Ever Made For Tv, I Also Like The Boy In The Plastic Bubble, Mr Spielberg Rocks!

  2. Mike: I have to agree with you about this being one of the best made for TV movies ever made. It certainly left an indelible impression on me!

  3. Duel proves that you don’t need a huge budget and lots of actors to make a classic and breathtaking movie. Pure horror. Pure genius.

    Its simpleness should encourage all film makers on a low budget — see, it IS possible to make incredible movies without tons of money. I come to think of the recent movie The Blair Witch Project as being in the same genre. In fact, this movie could be inspiration to every artist in any genre faced by low budget constraints. Talent CAN outperform financial muscles.

  4. Charlie: We are in complete concordance.

  5. My introduction to Duel was as a short story in the April 1971 issue of Playboy. (Yes it does have literature, too.) Although it’s been over 35 years, I still remember being capivated by Richard Matheson’s chilling story. Speilberg’s nerve-wrenching movie brought it to life. A great work in both mediums.

  6. Paul: Yes, Playboy has published a lot of my favorite writers (most notably, Kurt Vonnegut, who was crucial to my literary development). I’ve not read the original Matheson story yet, but I do have it on my Amazon.com wishlist, so I do plan on reading it someday. Thanks for your input.

  7. I´ve got a question.
    What do you think of the sunset in the end of the movie?


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