Duel (1971)

Action, Mystery, Thriller
Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell
A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by a malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.
  • 13 Nov 1971 Released:
  • 17 Aug 2004 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Richard Matheson (screenplay), Richard Matheson (s Writer:
  • Steven Spielberg Director:
  • N/A Website:


Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back on the Highways...8/10

DUEL is Spielberg's JAWS of the highway, a raucous nascar race of a film that was "made for TV". Usually, the phrase made-for-TV makes me ill, but Universal TV executives had no clue what they had here. It was so good, the film got its fitting recognition in Europe, where it was released theatrically. Spielberg's own idol, director David Lean, praised the film's suspense and excitement. A testimonial from Sir David Lean is enough to get any career going. DUEL begins from the point of view of a driver, and never lets up. The fear Dennis Weaver encounters consists not only of the monster truck itself, which is on an unexpected death chase, but of the inability to see who (or what) is behind the wheel.

It seemed like a great episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and Rod Serling would've been proud. Speed kills and you may never pass a slow truck on the highway again after seeing this. There is no character development, no humor, no identifiable characters, but in this case, who cares? It is only 90 minutes long and Spielberg's goal is to make you tired. To make you experience what this everyday salesman is going through for NO apparent reason. Besides a shark in the ocean, I really can't think of another more frightful situation to be in.

The truck itself is sinister looking, almost resembling one from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The only remnant of a human being in the truck is an arm. The arm waves much like the hitch-hiker in the famous TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Weaver is cheesy and silly looking in his Peter Fonda-esque shades, but it is a sign of the times. You don't necessarily find yourself rooting for him to escape alive. Basically, you are held prisoner by Spielberg's web of suspense, and stay wide-eyed the entire time. Great fun to watch on big or small screen.

RATING: 8 of 10
The ultimate car chase movie...5/10

Leave it to prosemaster extraordinaire, Richard Matheson (a favorite of mine and the man Stephen King acknowledges as being his biggest influence), to come up a premise so simple yet so believable and terrifying that the viewer will never look at an eighteen-wheeler the same way ever again...and leave it to cinematic wunderkind, Stephen Spielburg, to do right by Matheson's script and win acclaim in the bargain.

Though some may argue that "Bullit", "Vanishing Point", or maybe even the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" could be called the ultimate car chase movie, "Duel" deserves this designation better because it does something none of the above films can claim. The story literally starts on the road and ends on the road. No location in the entire film is ever out of sight of the highway and, in spite of the brief conversation with the wife, virtually nothing else happens outside the highway. For David Mann (played adequately enough by Dennis Weaver) and the monster truck he's trying to get away from, the road and everything alongside it is their entire universe. Nothing else of importance exists outside of it.

Though it's never mentioned in the film, this would seem to take place on the California highways. When I went out there about eight years ago, I went down roads that seemed to be not too dissimiliar to the ones shown here. They seemed to stretch on forever, no vestiges of civilization in sight for miles. Spielburg uses this setting to great advantage. Being in your car in a crowded city intersection is one thing, but on those highways with nothing but your car and a homicidal maniac in a diesel for miles? The isolation factor that cars naturally produce jumps up a thousand percent. The radiator hose problem made me think of many other times that I had similar troubles with cars I've had. Of course, I never had someone trying to kill me at the time, but...

Anyone looking for drama, character development, or all the other elements that pseudo-critics point out as the mark of cinematic excellence are liable to be disappointed by "Duel". It's what King described in "Danse Macabre" as a Tale of the Hook. It's only purpose is to scare the hell out of you. Damn if it doesn't work. THAT'S the mark of a classic.
City-slicker's nightmare9/10
Gleefully sadistic little thriller. Though the young Mr. Spielberg's hand is evident in many places (the economic storytelling style, the visual wit), the film's tone probably owes more to screenwriter (and 'Twilight Zone' veteran) Richard Matheson. The story has all the itchy paranoia of Matheson's best work, with Dennis Weaver's fussy little city man confronted by Tex-Mex suspicion at best, and relentless, illogical horror at worst, as he travels from one oasis of civilization to another for an important meeting. 'Duel' is essentially a city-slicker's nightmare, concentrating collective fears of wilderness and the mad souls who choose to dwell there. But at the same time it lightly satirizes those urbanite attitudes, and Weaver's Mann is often made to look laughable, with his silly necktie, and his little Plymouth Valiant, and his prissy, civilized approach to his problem. Spielberg revels in the black comic elements of Matheson's narrative, and the result is the perfect suspense/thriller tone--one never knows whether to laugh or scream. If the story lags a bit towards the end, and if the conclusion is rather a simple one, the film is still a model of economy and tone, and it features one of the most memorable villains in suspense-film history--one that weighs forty tons. 9 out of 10.
You won't believe it's Spielberg10/10

We all get stuck behind them sometimes: The huge trucks blocking your lane, blowing diesel fumes and spraying rocks from the ground all over your windshield. You try to pass them but sometimes it's just no use--they won't move out of the way, no matter how hard you try to mentally will them to do so.

Steven Spielberg's "Duel" is just a simple movie about a traveling everyman who tries to pass a huge flammable truck on a state highway, and is then strangely stalked by this angered truck driver who seems to want him dead. The everyman is played by Dennis Weaver, and his character's name in the film is David Mann--a businessman driving across California for a business meeting who is desperately late and struggling to get around an obnoxious eighteen-wheeler blocking the highway. After he passes the trucker, it seems to trigger a sort of strange road rage game between the two men.

At first everything seems to be quite normal, but then the truck swerves around David's car and slows down its speed again, keeping David behind schedule and driving behind a bunch of nasty fumes. Frustrated with the driver's arrogance, David decides to swerve around the truck again, and he soon finds himself on his way down the road, far away from the truck driver.

But his escape is not quite so simple.

The key to "Duel" is that we never see the truck driver, just like we never saw the shark from "JAWS" in its entirety. The truck driver haunting Mann seems to be a simple man who just suddenly goes nuts. Sometimes the best villains are those given no motivational background--Michael Myers from "Halloween" was described as "evil" by his own doctor, apparently killing for no reason whatsoever, and the shark from "JAWS" seemed to be the materialization of some sort of demon from hell. Their intentions are not clear--and that makes the film carry an intriguing mystery about it that makes it all the more watchable on a repetitive basis.

I was never a very big fan of "The Hitcher," which ripped off "Duel" quite a bit. Both films essentially deal with supernatural, untouchable villains shrouded by a layer of mystery. We never found out very much about Rutger Hauer's character in "The Hitcher," or why he was doing what he was doing, but by introducing him to the audience it made us want to know more--and the film took the easy way out by just providing us with nothing whatsoever. Even after promising us that it would through the very mouth of Hauer's character. That's bad filmmaking.

Spielberg does something different: He avoids the truck driver altogether. Apart from seeing his legs and a brief glimpse of his silhouette, the truck driver is completely shrouded by a dark cloud of mystery and intrigue. Had he been shown rising out of the truck disaster at the end of the film, burning alive like The Terminator, then the effect would be somewhat laughable. Spielberg does something much greater and more fantastic--this could, in technical terms, be called his most elaborately staged and perfectly executed film, even if it isn't the best on an overall basis.

There's a great scene in "Duel" where Mann stops at a roadside diner and tries to analyze his situation. At that point in time anyone could be the villain--the guy eating a sandwich, the guy with cowboy boots having a soda, or even the woman standing by the exit. But we never know, and either does Mann, and it helps this film quite a bit. But what Spielberg does that is pure genius is showing us Mann's thoughts through voice-over narrative in a way it has never really been done before. We hear Mann talking to himself, but not in an aware way. It is as if we pick up his mental decisions and thoughts via the film--and it works magnificently.

You've probably seen "Speed" by now, and so you know its breakneck speed and thrills. Well, take "Speed," throw in a homicidal truck driver, and set it in the early 70s, and you've got yourself a clear idea of what "Duel" feels like while you're watching it. It's one of those give-me-a-moment-to-catch-my-breath films--intriguing and fast-paced from start to finish.

Indeed, "Duel" is an early sign of Spielberg before he went commercial--not that his films aren't good anymore, but they all seem to contain typical Spielberg trademarks. Here, Spielberg shows that he can be a Hitchcockian director--even "JAWS" was more mainstream-oriented than this film.

Originally filmed for ABC in 1971 and later re-released overseas with nineteen minutes of extended footage, "Duel" is indeed a milestone movie--a counter to the ancient mythology that TV movies aren't any good. They can be. Most of the time they just don't want to be. But thanks to an intriguing idea and a terrific young director behind the project, "Duel" stands as one of the most remarkable films of all time, a sign of great things to come in the career of an aspiring newbie director with not a single true project under his belt. This is Spielberg's breakthrough. He has surpassed it with projects such as "JAWS," the "Indiana Jones" trilogy and "Schindler's List," but to say this is one of his most well made and unconventional films is a gross understatement.

Yeah, yeah, I know - another psychobabble analysis of Duel!5/10

Sorry, don't have time or inclination to read all 121 other comments on 'Duel' - wish I had, but there you are. Therefore I apologise if I'm saying what has been said before. However, in looking through the first couple of pages of comments on this movie (the only movie I ever feel compelled to write about) I notice that everyone seems to deal with it as a basic 'truck-(or truck driver)-chases-man' thriller. Now, I'm told Mr Spielberg is supposed to have pooh-poohed any 'psychological' reading of this film, but let's imagine for a moment that he's playing a game with us there. What if he really did mean to bury the clues. It's been a while since I saw it (lucky for you, or I'd remember more details), but some of the salient points stay with me always. Mr Mann! Just a coincidence? Of course not. He's you and me, buddy. An average, henpecked, downtrodden guy in a dead-end job, driving the most average car imaginable, too cowed by his boss to stay home for his kid's birthday, yelling in frustrated agreement with the rednecked radio announcer rather than getting out of his car and telling the world where to get off. Because he can't - or won't. (Well, if he did that would be the end of our movie, wouldn't it?) Now, admit it or not, at some time we all have a monster in our lives, somewhere. Something that scares the Hell out of us, and no matter how hard we try to ignore it, or how fast we run, it's always there, waiting around the next corner. For Mann, the truck is this fear. He can't shake it, and he never will - not until he finally turns and faces it. That's why we don't see the driver (and don't need to), that's why the truck has no stand-out markings, that's why it seems to possess impossible power. That's also why it seems to have a life of its own, constantly breathing, wheezing, snorting, almost pawing at the ground when it finds him once more - even to the final moments when it 'dies' like a wounded dinosaur, flipping end-over-end, roaring and bellowing into the canyon, its 'tail' flipping and thrashing above it, its 'blood' finally dripping onto the steering wheel as it breathes its last, and silence finally falls. And go back a few moments: exactly how does Mann dispose of this monster? By taking his nicely monogrammed briefcase (note the CU of his initials in this shot - coincidence?) and wedging it against his boring little Dodge's accelerator pedal, before leaping clear and sending his entire world and identity into Hell. That's why we leave him sitting on the cliff-top in the setting sun. There's no need to see what happens next. It doesn't matter. He's done what he needed to do - he's now free to walk away and start a new life if he wishes, or go home to his family. Whatever. Mann is now in charge of his own destiny. Whenever I watch this movie (not so often these days) I find myself seeing all the myriad other clues that fit the jigsaw so neatly that it's hard to believe it's mere chance. Go take another look - especially if you've hated the damn thing until now. Even if I'm wrong, it makes a fascinating exercise.