Duel (1971) ****
In recent years, Iíve become accustomed to thinking of Steven Spielberg as a huge jackass. When I think ďSpielberg,Ē I think of those walky-talkies digitally substituted for the revolvers carried by the police in E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial. I think of The Lost World: Jurassic Park II, a film whose guiding principle could best be encapsulated as, ďWell sure itís completely stupid and unnecessary, but gee whiz, donít those dinosaurs look cool?!Ē I think of his pompous and manipulative social-conscience movies, like Amistad and Schindlerís List. What I have a hard time remembering to think about is Jaws, or even Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well now Iíve got a third movie to poke myself with when I want to be reminded that Spielbergís work wasnít always what it is today, a little film from the very beginning of his pro career, when he was first and foremost a television director. A Richard Matheson adaptation that not even the final segment of Trilogy of Terror can compare to. Iím talking about Duel.
I read the story long before I saw Spielbergís movie version, but I already knew that it existed. At the time, I remember thinking, ďWho in their right mind would try to make a film adaptation of this?Ē Mathesonís ďDuelĒ has hardly any dialogue, none but the simplest and most rudimentary plot, and only one real character. Itís about a meek, middle-aged businessman driving cross-country on a work-related mission, and the psychopathic truck driver who spends an entire day trying to run him off the road. Thatís it. The businessman and the trucker never even meet face to face. And like most of Mathersonís best work (I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, ďThe Likeness of JulieĒ), the action in ďDuelĒ is distinctly subordinated to the central characterís psychological and emotional response to it. With such limited material to work with, thereís probably only one viable strategy for adapting the story to the screen, and thatís to turn it into one continuous, Road Warrior-like motor vehicle chase. Thatís just what Spielberg did here, and nowhere else but The Road Warrior will you find a tenser, more exciting highway face-off.
Apart from the fact that heís some sort of salesman, it doesnít really matter what David Mann (Dennis Weaver) does for a living, and we never do find out. Whatís important is that on this particular day, doing his job means making a multi-hour drive across the semi-arid Southern California countryside to a faraway town for a meeting with an important client. Mann is under considerable time pressure, not only because his meeting is scheduled for a certain set time, but also because his unreasonable, nagging wife (Jacqueline Scott, from Empire of the Ants and Macabre) insists that he be home that night, no matter what. So David is terribly annoyed when he finds himself behind a decrepit-looking, slow-moving, smoke-belching tanker truck. There isnít a lot of opposing traffic, though, and after enduring the plodding pace and the stench of unburned hydrocarbons for a minute or two, David pulls out into the left lane to pass the truck. But much to Davidís chagrin, the truck then performs the same maneuver and reestablishes its position in front of him. Its driver also slows down to an even more lethargic crawl afterwards. Again, David passes, and again the truck driver immediately gets back in front of him. Then the trucker begins actively opposing Davidís efforts to get by, swerving from lane to lane to cut him off every time he tries to pass. Finally, apparently tiring of the game, the trucker reaches his arm out the window, and motions for David to go around him. Itís a trick, though; the tanker truckís bulk prevents David from seeing this until itís almost too late, but taking the truckerís invitation to pass puts Mann directly into the path of an oncoming car! Thereís nothing David can do at this point except skid off of the road and sit on the shoulder while he tries to re-collect his wits, leaving the tanker truck to take off down the road at surprisingly high speed.
Mann gets out of his car and walks across the road to a little diner, still rattled from his encounter with the tanker truck. After a trip to the menís room to splash some water on his face and steady his nerves, David gets a table and asks the waitress for a cheese sandwich, a glass of water, and some aspirin. Then he happens to look out the windowó the very same tanker truck is now parked beside one of the diesel pumps, its cab empty. Which means, naturally, that one of those identically dressed yahoos over at the counter is almost certainly the psycho driver. After stewing in his own juices for a bit, David resolves to confront the trucker, and settle the situation once and for alló but which one is he? The chunky guy on the left end of the counter? The tough-looking one with the blonde buzzcut on the right? What about the one in the booth way over on the other side of the dineró the one who keeps looking in Davidís direction? Yeah. Thatís him. Gotta be. Or not; the guy in the booth clearly has no idea what the skinny little salesman is talking about, but that doesnít stop him from getting up from behind his table and punching David out. Iím sure you can understand why Mann would take his leave of the diner at this juncture.
No sooner is David out on the road again than the truck is in pursuit. Sometimes itís cat-and-mouse, with the truckís driver avoiding direct confrontation, but making sure David knows heís being stalked nevertheless. And sometimes itís deadly, flat-out violence. At one point, the truck driver tries to push Davidís car around the safety gate of a railroad crossing and under the wheels of a passing freight train. Later, he prevents David from getting help by flattening the phone booth from which he was trying to call the police. In the end, David realizes heís got no choice but to go on the attack himself, unequal though the contest may be.
Thereís a good chance that Duel is the best horror movie ever made for American TV. The sheer efficiency of it is breathtaking; barely a second is wasted anywhere, and there isnít a single scene or minor secondary character that isnít somehow necessary to maintaining the mood of escalating panic or keeping the story in motion. The only thing slowing it down is the annoyingly frequent and totally pointless voiceover narration allowing us to hear Davidís thoughtsó probably a concession to the studio brass. And Spielbergís decision never to reveal the mad truckerís face is a masterstroke. With its driver hidden from view except as a beefy forearm or a pair of battered cowboy boots, the truck itself takes on a sinister sort of life. The effect is magnified by the vehicleís appearance. Rusted , scabby, and ancient, itís impossible to tell even what color the thing was originally painted; the truck looks more like some kind of monstrous reptile than a machine for transporting goods across the country. (And note that when the truck is finally destroyed, the sounds of rending metal and collapsing stone are overlaid with the bellowing of a bull or some similarly big and deep-throated animal.) Comparisons to later killer-vehicle movies (The Car, Maximum Overdrive, Wheels of Terror) are inevitable. Whatís surprising is the effortless way in which a little TV flick on the same subject puts them all to shame.