Monday, 11 January 2016


Have you ever wanted to see Christine played by an 18-wheeler? No? Well, it's funny how big directors get started because it just so happens that such a film was made in 1971 by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yes, this is the same Steven Spielberg who later went on to make classics such as Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. Originally released as a television movie, Duel proved to be so popular that Universal Studios decided to give it a theatrical release. In this process, they unwittingly launched Spielberg's career and opened the door for him to make a variety of very different films from this one.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is an ordinary person going about a normal day. He is driving out to meet a colleague when he finds himself blocked by an old truck carrying ammonia. Out of frustration, he passes the truck, only to find himself being passed again. Initially, Mann dismisses this frustrating but seemingly brief encounter. That is until he begins to see the truck reappear everywhere he goes. After some time, it starts to become clear that the driver (who is never seen) has apparently developed a grudge against Mann, and will stop at nothing to kill him. Mann now realizes he is locked in a motorized duel, as he desperately tries to evade his attacker while the driver pulls every trick to mess with him and drive him off the road. To make matters worse, nobody believes him, and his attempts to find assistance only endanger the bystanders he comes across. So basically, it's like a feature-length version of the biplane sequence from North by Northwest.

Funnily enough, this one is actually better than you would expect from a film with this kind of premise. The narrative is fast-paced and straight forward, and while there might not be much to the central character he does manage to carry the audience through. It is definitely a simplistic film. Outside of the people he occasionally runs into, Mann is pretty much the only character of significance, and a lot of the action is focused purely on the chase. Even the film's treatment of Mann himself, rather than detailing his personal life beyond a brief telephone conversation, is primarily about his emotions and his reactions to the unusual situation he has found himself caught in.

The decision to hide the truck driver is also an interesting touch. We never get a clear glimpse of his (or her?) face. All we see is a pair of boots that indicate little about the driver's appearance. Aside from eliminating the emotional repercussions of killing the driver at the end, it does have the effect of making this person a lot more intimidating. We never know quite what is going through their head, or why they have become so determined to kill this one man. As a result, the truck itself becomes a character in its own right. This creates an interesting dynamic of man vs. machine that continues throughout the film.

Spielberg's Duel makes for an interesting experience, especially for one who is familiar with his later work. Compared to the types of films he is known for, Duel is a strange experience. Like many directors' early work, it does not easily show the trademarks that they would develop later in their career. Even disregarding the later films, Duel still remains an adrenaline-packed thriller that creates constant tension and suspense, even if it can be described as simply as "Christine meets the cropduster scene from North by Northwest." It's an unusual movie, but still an interesting one to see if only for a glimpse into Spielberg's early career. 

1 comment:

  1. I remember this film when I was a kid and then I re-watched it a few years ago and it is excellent. Dennis Weaver plays the average guy really well and it is menacing-great review!!