Mild-mannered salesman David Mann (Weaver) is travelling across the California desert highway to get to a business meeting. En route, he hastily overtakes a huge gas tanker and the unseen driver takes offence. Playing mind-games and relentlessly pursuing Mann, it soon becomes clear that the driver is out to get him…
It’s hard to imagine now, but Steven Spielberg was once a young twentysomething upstart who jumped at the chance to direct a Movie Of The Week. A small budget made-for-TV film shot over an estimated 13 days, it was Spielberg’s first professional feature – and his first big success. Though built around an ultra-lean premise with hardly any dialogue, it’s a masterclass in generating suspenseful terror from a basic story, and has since gone on to become one of the most well-regarded small-screen thrillers in history.
Undoubtedly, it’s a sparse narrative (man gets chased by a truck… and that’s it), but one which the Beard-to-be gets a surprisingly amount of (ahem) mileage from. A simple-yet-high-concept horror, the script was adapted by celebrated sci-fi writer Richard Matheson from his own short story, which was inspired by a real-life event where he and his writing partner Jerry Sohl were nearly careered off the road by a trucker on the day of JFK’s assassination. Prompting a ‘what would you do in that situation?’ response, it’s a relatable nightmare scenario (what would you do?). True, there’s little in the way of plot or character, yet the game of cat-and-mouse is tension-packed, more varied than you’re probably expecting and complemented by great sound work.
Lacking any kind of sentimentality or romanticism, it’s not particularly Spielbergian mind you, and anyone watching unaware of who directed it would probably have a tough time guessing. That said, Spielberg himself has noted that Duel has a certain kinship with Jaws, stating that both are about leviathans targeting and terrifying normal people, not to mention the fact he used the same ‘dinosaur roar’ at the end of both movies (which is criminally missing from certain DVD editions…).
Of course, the most obvious parallels are the relentless nature of this pursuing monster which exists merely to taunt and kill, while the unseen manner adds layers of menace. Aside from the waving hand and the boots, the driver could be anybody, an idea brilliantly toyed with in the film’s stand-out sequence where an increasingly-paranoid Mann tries to work out which guy at the truck stop is the one after him. As for Dennis Weaver (chosen by the ‘Berg for his turn as the hotel manager in Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil), he’s great as the non-confrontational everyman with an ever-escalating sense of panic and despair.
Ultimately, it’s old, understandably rough-around-the-edges and dry in places, but Duel is Steven Spielberg’s first important piece of work and remains a masterclass in generating suspenseful terror from an ultra-simple premise. A must for fans of The Beard.