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.