Satire Is Futile

52 Movies: Week 42 - Duel

Most likely this is going to be the only film discussed in this series which was originally an ABC Movie of the Week, i.e. made specifically for network TV. It was broadcast in 1971, and whereas most similar works are immediately forgotten, this one has lived on. I actually saw it on its original broadcast—a bit surprising because I didn’t see a whole lot of TV at that time—and never forgot it. So when we first subscribed to Netflix, and I spent some time searching for things that were too obscure to have been available in video rental stores, this was one of them. I found it and put it on my list, but it went into the “not currently available but one day it might be” category, and I more or less forgot about it until it surfaced at the top of the list a few weeks ago. At that point, and being, I suppose, a bit jaded by the sheer quantity of movies available now, I considered removing it, but decided to give it a shot anyway.

I’m glad I did. It is actually better than I thought in 1971, watching it on a tiny black-and-white screen. It is in fact quite good, not just good in comparison to other made-for-TV movies. And I’m sure that part of what sets it apart is that it was directed by a very young Steven Spielberg. At this point in his career he had only done television work, and it was Duel that opened the way for his first “real” movie, The Sugarland Express (which I have not seen).

In general I’m not much of a Spielberg fan. Sure, his films are well made and generally enjoyable, but to my taste—which I have to point out is based on limited acquaintance—they tend to strike me as entertaining, but not a great deal more. Glancing down the list of titles in his filmography, I don’t see anything that affected me deeply or lastingly, except for moments of intense cinematic thrill, like certain scenes in Jurassic Park (for instance: “Clever girl!”).

And you could write off Duel as an intense cinematic thrill. But there’s something to be said for that, and Duel does it extremely well. Moreover, I would argue that without any obvious explicit attempt to produce philosophical resonance, the film does have some.

It opens with a black screen. We hear the sound of a car starting, light comes in through what we realize is an opening garage door, and for the next five minutes we see things entirely from the point of view of the car’s driver, Dave Mann (Dennis Weaver), as he exits his driveway, makes his way through Los Angeles (I think), and out onto a two-lane highway in the dry hills of rural southern California. The camera shifts away from Mann’s viewpoint, and we see his car, a red Plymouth Valiant, and Mann himself, a pretty ordinary-looking fellow, listening to talk shows on AM radio. Some of the talk turns out to be pretty relevant to Mann, such as a guy complaining that he is not the head of his household.

He gets behind a dirty old tanker truck with “FLAMMABLE” in big letters across the tank. Impatiently, he passes the truck—when he shouldn’t, apparently, as there is a solid yellow line between the lanes. In a minute the truck comes roaring past him, but soon he finds himself stuck behind it again, breathing its dirty exhaust. So he passes again.

And now the battle begins. This truck is driven by a killer. At this point we’re only fifteen minutes or so into the film, and for the next hour and fifteen minutes we watch as the driver of the truck attempts to use it to kill Mann.

That’s about as much as you need to know about the plot. Suffice to say that the rest of the film is intense, grueling, and brilliantly executed. I distinctly remember being totally captivated by it on TV, and at the end thinking “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that on TV before.” And in my opinion it still very much works, 45 years later, even more so on a bigger and sharper screen and in color, though this time I knew how it would turn out.

One of the things that really struck me is that it doesn’t seem at all dated cinematically. Sure, the quality of the cinematography is of its time, and the general milieu of characters and culture (the story does not all take place on the road) are in many ways far from the present day. (Watching older movies, especially of the thriller sort, makes one realize how many turns of plot involved the need to find a telephone, or could only happen because the mobile phone did not exist.) But the technique—angles, cutting, etc.--gives the chase a gripping realism that I don’t think could be much improved upon today.

Dennis Weaver may be remembered by people of a certain age (or nostalgists) as Chester in Gunsmoke, and I think people at the time (I was one) were surprised by the intensity and effectiveness of this performance. And if you’re wondering about the truck driver, well, I guess it’s not giving away too much to say that we never see his face. That’s part of what generates that resonance I mentioned: Mann’s enemy (get it?) seems to be the truck itself, an embodiment of death, attacking and pursuing without warning or much justification. As Mann says, “Well, you never know. You just never know.”


Not what you want to see in your rear-view mirror.

The script is by Richard Matheson, from one of his own short stories. You may recognize his name: he wrote a lot of sci-fi/fantasy books, short stories, and screenplays, including some Twilight Zone episodes and the novel I Am Legend. Spielberg was/is a great admirer of his.

The DVD includes a lengthy interview with Spielberg in which he describes how the film came to be made and goes into a lot of detail about how it was done, what he had to do to achieve those effects, and so forth, and although I don’t usually enjoy those how-it-was-made features I found this one fascinating

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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I remember that first broadcast because I missed it for some reason and everyone was talking about it in school the next day (I would have been in 4th or 5th grade). I don't remember exactly when I eventually caught up with it, but I remember liking it a lot, and wouldn't mind seeing it again.

I think this is a boy thing.


Although I do like Richard Matheson.


I don't know why ("boy thing"). The relationship between Mann and the trucker is very well developed and explored.

(Actually that thought occurred to me, too.)

A while back here we had some discussion about 18-wheelers, some people expressing great hatred and fear of them. This might be contra-indicated for those people.

I should have mentioned that the version available on DVD is one that was expanded by 15 minutes for release to foreign markets as a feature film. The opening sequence I described is part of that extra 15 minutes. I did think the transition between that p.o.v. and the somewhat distant shot of the car on the road was a little awkward, though I think the opening is really good.

I have no memory of that conversation, but I do remember being forced off the road by an 18-wheeler very well.


I remember being freaked out when I was a kid by a description my uncle gave of a film about a menacing truck that relentlessly followed the protagonist hither and yon. I think this must be the one he was talking about.

Could very well be. Good thing you didn't actually see the movie!

I've never been forced off the road by an 18-wheeler but I've had a couple of very unpleasant experiences, one that could have gotten me and my wife and children killed. For a while after it happened I could have gladly killed that driver.

On the other hand, though, I had a 60-mile commute every day for 25 years, much of it interstate highway, and by far most of the big truck drivers drove safely.

Yes, most of them do, and I know that when the wind is blowing really hard, it is hard to keep those trucks in their lanes (hard to keep my car in the lane) and most them do a really good job.

Michael Perry has a good essay in one of his books about riding with a truck driver.


I couldn't remember my brother talking about how stirring the movie is

I remember watching Duel when it was first shown and finding it a little too close for comfort because I was living in California's Antelope Valley at the time and often had huge trucks like that following scarily close behind me on the roads there. Some of Duel was shot on those roads.

From the Wikipedia entry for the movie:

"Much of the movie was filmed in and around the communities of Canyon Country, Agua Dulce, and Acton, California. In particular, sequences were filmed on Sierra Highway, Agua Dulce Canyon Road, Soledad Canyon Road, and Angeles Forest Highway. Many of the landmarks from Duel still exist today, including the tunnel, the railroad crossing, and Chuck's Café, where Mann stops for a break. The building is still on Sierra Highway and has housed a French restaurant called Le Chene since 1980.[2] The "Snakerama" gas station seen in the film appears in Spielberg's comedy film 1941 (1979) as an homage to Duel, with Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor."

Turns out that our library has several copies of the DVD, which seems to have been released in 2004. I should have a copy in hand early next week.

Bill remembers seeing it then, too. I find this amazing. He wasn't very impressed. ;-)


But then he did remember it.

Several copies of the DVD? That must mean it's fairly popular. That's interesting.

It's a countywide library system, so it's serving a lot of people. Still, having more than a copy or two on hand means that it must be checked out at least somewhat regularly.

I meant to communicate that I CAN remember my brother saying its such a thrilling film

Heh. I thought that was what you meant but didn't want to confuse things more by trying to clarify it.

It's $3.99 to stream it on Amazon! Somebody's watching it.


That's more than usual? I've only used that once or twice...hmm, yeah, I think that is a lot higher than usual.

My copy came in from the library so I ended up watching it last night. I had forgotten most of it except the ending, and even on that my memory was sketchy.

Anyways, it's very good and holds up really well. Spielberg was only 21 or 22 when he made it, and the talent definitely shows. I too found the interview fascinating.

It struck me that if a similar movie were made today, a small budget indie release, say, but one of similar quality, it would likely be a huge "underground" hit.

Glad you liked it. In a way it was an underground hit, even though millions watched it--the way it lived on, when those made-for-tvs were generally forgotten immediately. Spielberg's later achievements don't really account for it. I, for instance, remembered it all those years without knowing he directed it.

One recent Spielberg movie that I really liked was War Horse. Very much an homage to an older style of filmmaking, John Ford, especially.

I confess to never having seen either Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. I think I would find both too difficult to watch.

How are you set for movies, by the way? November's going to be very busy for me, but I can probably get you one for the first or second week in December.

It's just week by week at this point. I have something for next week. Whatever you can do is welcome. I figure at this point I can at worst get to the end of the year just by doing brief notes on movies I've seen over the years. I can think of at least three Bergmans worthy of note, for instance.

Hmm, I just noticed that there are only 9 more Wednesdays in the year, but 10 more movies needed to make it 52 (unless I have misnumbered/counted somewhere in the year). Have to squeeze another one in there somewhere, I guess on Dec 31, which is a Saturday.

I haven't seen Schindler or Ryan, either, for the same reason.

I have seen Schindler's list twice. I thought it was horrifying until I saw Son of Saul last month. Son of Saul was so horrible it stayed with me literally for over a month like a nightmare that didn't end.

I had not heard of it, but I read a little about it just now, and it definitely goes into the "too difficult to watch" list.

Schindler's List and Saving....same here.


I think they are both very good movies.

That's why they're too hard to watch. ;-)


Yeah, I don't mean I think they're bad movies.

I felt that way about The Pianist. A great film, one that I'm glad I watched, but I doubt I'd ever watch again. Just too harrowing and too sad.

I don't know that one.

I was looking at some of these movies on Netflix and found this comment about Schindler's List: "This is how I feel about the poor reviews here about Schindler's List. If a miraculous story of salvation during the Holocaust is boring to you, then stick to your Adam Sandler movies." So that made me laugh. I will have to check out Son of Saul, and rewatch The Pianist since I barely remember it now. Seen Schindler twice, so that's probably enough, but maybe not. Sad movies don't bum me out.

Mac, the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan is really worth seeing. It may be the first time that war was really captured on film. Though having never been to war, who's to say? The rest of the film is rather "run of the mill" in my opinion. But it is a very good movie! And I'm not the biggest Spielberg fan, but he is an effective film maker. Jaws and A.I. may be my two favorites of his, but I also enjoyed Bridge of Spies a lot. War Horse not quite as much, but it wasn't bad.

Funny, that first 20 minutes is what I don't want to see. I've heard it's extremely graphic.

I liked Bridge of Spies too, but enjoyed War Horse more.

The Pianist is the Polanski film with Adrian Brody about the Jewish concert pianist who is captured by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. It's based on a true story. I'm pretty sure it won a few Oscars but I forget what year.

I only watched the first part of that, which was very good. When they were waiting at the station or whatever-it-was to leave, I turned it off. I don't remember why.


My reluctance to see Schindler is not that it's a sad movie, but that I really think I know all I need to know about the Holocaust and just don't see a need to put myself through that wringer again. Perhaps if I had some reason to think that it was a truly great film, I would, but I don't see Spielberg that way. I agree that he's "an effective film maker" but he doesn't seem to me to be a profound one.

Stick to your Adam Sandler movies, Mac! ;)

Oh yeah, I was going to ask: who is Adam Sandler? I guess I could Google...

The two things that have stayed with me more than anything from Schindler's List are the casual, bottomless sadism of the character played by Ralph Fiennes and the Jewish prisoners being forced to run around naked so the guards could determine their physical fitness.

I'm not sure "sad" is the word I would use to describe the effect Holocaust movies have on me; it just doesn't seem strong enough.


Hey Mac -- it might be fun to have a thread at the end of the year/beginning of next year for folks to list their favorite books, music, etc., of the year.

And is there going to be another "52" series next year?

Well...good suggestion and question...I have been thinking a lot about the future of the blog, and planning to put the thoughts into a post. Tune in late Sunday or sometime Monday.

Wait, make that late Monday. Just remembered a lot of stuff going on this weekend. Finishing my 52 Saints post, for one thing.

Seen The Pianist twice, I think. Like it a lot

I will be so grateful.


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