Duel (1971) ****1/2
Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 1h 31m
Categories: Killer Cars
There is elegance in simplicity: A man, a red 70s sedan, a rusty old truck driven by an unseen maniac, and an endless stretch of road through the American southwest. As it turns out, that’s all you need for one of the most auspicious directorial debuts of all time and the single greatest made-for-tv movie. Duel is the simplest of films; all the dialogue could be removed and the whole thing would probably work just fine as a silent feature with minimal editing. Indeed, The only superfluous element is the voice over narration that crops up at the start of the 2nd act. Director Steven Spielberg would go on to produce a string of masterpieces (Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993)) as well as more than his fair share of self-indulgent messes (Schindler’s List (1993), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)), but never in his long career has he matched the purity of Duel. Indeed, I find it rather bizarre that a director later know for massive production values and cutting edge special effects would have gotten his start with such a lean, almost Spartan film. Perhaps it was the constraints of his early career that pushed Spielberg towards the dangerous belief that more money and more special effects were a panacea for all the frustrations of filmmaking. In which case, he learned the exact opposite lesson that he should have. Duel is proof that an artist with a camera, three vehicles, some pocket change and two weeks can make a masterpiece for the ages.
David Mann is a wimpy 30-something driving a shitty Plymouth Valiant across the highway in the Mojave Desert. Just what he’s doing on the road that day is left mostly unexplained, we only know that he is some kind of salesman en route to a meeting with an important client. Despite the arduous commute, this client still expects Mann to be at the meeting on time. Adding to his stress is the fact that things in the Mann residence are strained to say the least. At a party last night, a man “practically tried to rape” Mann’s wife while he stood by and did nothing about it. Right away we establish that Mann is the kind of guy that can’t stand up for himself to either his boss, or his wife, or anyone else for that matter. He’s a wimp who let’s himself get pushed around, and can’t even do anything when his wife is nearly attacked at a party. He’s the kind of guy that avoids conflict whenever he can, only there’s a whole bunch of conflict heading his way in the form of beat-up big rig driven by a psychopath.
As he’s driving along the highway, Mann encounters a smoke-belching tractor-trailer truck driving well below the posted speed limit. Mann, being a cautious driver, waits for an opportunity and then passes the big rig. So far so uneventful, but almost as soon as he’s out in front the truck, the truck speeds up and passes him. From there the truck really starts to act like an asshole, swearing right and left to keep Mann from passing, speeding up whenever Mann tries to get ahead and at all other times driving almost comically under the speed limit. Keep in mind, Mann needs to get to his meeting on time, so he takes the (for him at least) unorthodox approach of cutting in front of the truck on an off-road trail and then accelerating down the freeway as fast as his Plymouth can manage. Only problem is that the truck takes Mann’s actions as an excuse to elevate the highway games he’s been playing with Mann from irresponsible to downright sadistic. The truck spends the next few miles of bleak desert road tailgating Mann at 90 mph, trying to run his little red sedan off the road. Mann only barely manages to escape the truck by swerving into the parking lot of Chuck’s café so fast that he crashes into a fence post.
A rattled Mann heads into the café for an aspirin, a glass of water and a cheese sandwich. He’s obviously worse for wear, but aside from some fearful trembling and a slight case of whiplash, Mann is otherwise unharmed. He’s only just finished calming himself down with a thoroughly redundant voice over monologue (I suspect that it was the product of TV execs fearful of selling a virtually silent film to their weekly audiences) when he catches sight of the same beat-up truck that was just chasing him parked outside the café. Naturally, this means that the man who just tried to kill him is somewhere in the café. Earlier, Mann had gotten a partial look at the trucker so he knows that the driver of the murderous truck wears cowboy boots and jeans; problem is every trucker on this highway dresses like that along with a healthy percentage of the guys who drive smaller vehicles. Mann picks the most likely suspect and confronts him, but only winds up looking like a crazy fool and getting beaten up and tossed out of the café. The truck that so recently tried to kill him is already driving off, meaning both Mann and the audience have no idea just who is driving the damn thing. It’s going to stay that way too, throughout the film’s runtime we will never get a clear look at the trucker.
From there the truck becomes an omnipresent predator, stalking Mann at every turn. When he pulls over to help a stalled out school bus the truck appears on the horizon at the worse possible moment; when Mann stops at a train crossing the truck seemingly materializes behind him and tries to push his Plymouth Valiant onto the train tracks; at one point the truck just sits parked just off the main road, daring Mann to try and drive past. The truck dogs Mann every step of the way, in a fashion that combined with the picturesque desert landscape is reminiscent of the eternal struggle between Wily E. Coyote and the Roadrunner; the only difference is that neither combatant in Duel is blessed with the coyote’s ability to spring back instantaneously from the most grievous of injuries. No, unlike the classic cartoon this is a fight to the death. After a while of failing to escape from the truck, and failing to get any help from either the police or the local yokels, Mann realizes that his only chance is to take on the killer truck by himself.
The central relationship of Duel is nothing short of sublime, which is all the more impressive given the fact that one of its two leads is an inanimate object. We never see the driver of the rampaging truck, which means that the truck itself needs to convey all the appropriate menace. Size and speed are both vital for making the truck into a credible threat, but to carry an entire feature film not just any truck will do. Spielberg took care in selecting his antagonist, and it shows, the truck is one of those objects that has seen such long hard use that they begin to develop a personality of their own. Spielberg imbues the truck with a similar menacing life that he would use to bring alive the shark in Jaws (1975) and the t-rex in Jurassic Park (1993). Dennis Weaver, who plays David Mann, is not totally upstaged by his mechanical co-star though. The strength of his performance is his ability to show both terror and bewilderment with little to no dialogue. Throughout the film, Weaver consistently delivers an excellent performance as an average man on the edge of madness and despair. Given that this is a screenplay penned by Richard Matherson, who built a career on such protagonists, means that Weaver is ideally suited for he role.
Duel leaves itself wide open for a variety of possible interpretations, from the direct “cigar is just a cigar” school of analysis to the most naval gazing of philosophical interpretations. The thing is, nobody aside from Mann sees the truck do anything sinister. When other people are around the psychotic trucker is transformed into an upstanding citizen, heck he even gives the stalled school bus a helpful push after David runs away. When the truck attacks the snake pit the proprietor screams out “Why did he do that? Why did he break my cage in half?” which seems to refer to the truck. However, if the truck is really just a figment of Mann’s diseased imagination, then Mann is just running around tipping over snake terrariums, which would probably bring about the same response from the proprietor. So we’re left with the possibility that there is no truck chasing Mann that anyone else can see. The truck could be a manifestation of his guilt and fears, chasing him down trying to destroy him; or a creation of Mann’s own inadequacies giving him a fearful enemy that he can eventually triumph over. The later interpretation is the most appealing to me, as it’s revealed early on that Mann had failed to defend his wife at a recent party they hosted. A man who is incapable of defending his own wife in his own home would be in desperate need for an ego boast, almost to the point of being able to fabricate a delusional one. Despite all that though, there’s no reason why you can’t look at Duel and see just a story about a regular guy and a murderous trucker. Nothing on screen rules it out, and sometimes that’s all you really need.