At 11:32 AM Mann passed the truck.
With this simple sentence begins an equally simple short story, Duel, from writer Richard Matheson, about a man being chased by a truck. The film Duel would soon prove to be anything but simple. Originally envisioned as a movie of the week, Duel premiered on ABC the 13th of November, 1971. It was so successful that it was later expanded and released as a theatrical feature film in Europe two years later. The film set a new bar for what could be achieved on TV. Compare this to the giant-mutant-shark-CGI-movies of the week that Sci-Fi Channel makes these days, I dare you.
Most importantly Duel became responsible for kick-starting Steven Spielberg's career. He simply refused to let the TV format limit him. He took the job very seriously, but he saw it as a stepping stone to something better. This is the work of a director who wanted to make MOVIES. He didn't want to work in TV, so he was dead set on proving himself. Duel was the perfect vehicle for that, if you'll forgive the pun.
Mann (Dennis Weaver) is on his way to an important meeting.
On a dusty empty road in the middle of Nowhere USA, he passes a truck. He thinks nothing more of this, until the truck suddenly roars past him to take the lead again. A moment later Mann overtakes the truck once more. This innocent game continues for a while, but when the truck is back in the lead, it suddenly blocks the road, preventing Mann from passing it, causing him to grow increasingly frustrated.
At one point it seems like the truck has given up, and with the wave of a hand the driver indicates that Mann can now pass him. Mann overtakes the truck in a hurry and only narrowly misses a frontal collision with an oncoming car. Frustration gives way to fear, when the reality of the situation dawns on Mann: The truck is trying to kill him!
Without a doubt a film ostensibly as simple as Duel could not have been made today. A man. A car. A dusty road. And a truck. That's all. And yet with these few components Steven Spielberg crafts a suspense thriller to rival to works of Alfred Hitchcock at his best. An epic struggle that pits man against machine, and pushes him to the brink of sanity.
With an extremely tight shooting schedule Duel was no easy job. Spielberg claims it was shot in a mere 13 days! Not only that, but the brutal post-production schedule, gave him only 3,5 weeks from the day the last shot was in the can, till the film was scheduled to be shown on TV. Madness, even by today's standards. Yet with all this pressure behind him, Spielberg performs perfectly. And yes, I don't mind giving him all the credit here, even though he didn't write the story, because this is a director's film, if ever I saw one.
Duel is a 90 minutes long chase scene, with limited dialogue. Every sensation we feel along the way has to be created with the camera and through editing. There are no big sweeping dialogues for the actors to chew on here. The chase is the star here. From the moment the chase begins to the bitter end, the film tightens its grip on the audience. Every scene enforces the sense of impending doom, and there's a constantly accelerating sense of claustrophobia, throughout the film. Quite a feat for a film that takes place mostly on the open road!
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how inventive Spielberg is with his camera. The neverending dust road races by, each mile similar to the one before, and yet Spielberg constantly comes up with new ways to shoot the same thing. Credit for this should be shared with the writer Richard Matheson, who meticulously planned the route for his screenplay, and cinematographer Jack A. Marta's dynamic images. Spielberg also scores some easy points by having actor Dennis Weaver drive the car most of the time, and shooting everything on location. You just can't buy that kind of realism, no matter how much CGI you throw at it!
The villain of the piece, the truck itself, is one of the most frightening creations of Spielberg's career! In the DVD special features the director talks about casting the perfect truck, and he sure as hell found it. What a beast! A smoking, dirty, noisy monster of steel! Big letters on the back warn that the content of the truck is "flammable", and when we look into the cab we rarely see more than a silhouette of the driver inside. It's a completely mundane sight, yet Spielberg manages to make it the most frightening thing ever.
My only gripe with the film (and I'm a little unclear whether this is more prominent in the extended version) is the voice-over. On the soundtrack we occasionally hear Dennis Weaver's thoughts, through an increasingly desperate whispering voice, contemplating his dire situation. That's not really necessary. The masterful film-making leaves no doubt about Mann's feelings at any point.
Duel is also worth investigating in the context of Spielberg's entire body of work, since it explores themes he would return to again and again.
The most dominant theme in Duel concerns the emasculated man, tamed by modern society - and the women in his life - robbed of the beast inside. With steel, grease, and petrol the taunting driver asks: "What are you going to do, Mann? Are you still a man, Mann?" This unprovoked menace doesn't just threaten Mann's life. It rips a giant hole in the fabric of Mann's secure, suffocating universe.
If we expand this idea we could draw parallels to Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), where Roy has his imagination suffocated by his wife, or even the Indiana Jones series, where Indy is likewise tamed by the academic world, and is only truly happy, when he's out of the office.
Forcing an ordinary man to face a seemingly insurmountable challenge is a mainstay of Spielberg movies. In a way this tale of man vs. machine, could also be seen as a prelude to the man vs. beast theme of Jaws (1975), which also pits a middle-class man against an unstoppable force, or Jurassic Park (1993) for that matter.
The screenplay for Duel was not written by Spielberg, nor were the screenplays for Jaws, Jurassic Park, or the Indiana Jones movies, but I don't think the fact that these subjects find their way back into Spielberg's movies time after time can be written off as pure chance. He seems drawn to these themes. If we focus only on the stories he's written himself - The Sugarland Express (1974), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist (1982), The Goonies (1985) - it's clear that they all deal with completely ordinary people facing extreme circumstances. Coincidence? Hardly.
Is that why his films became so popular? They might often deal with fantastic stories, but the characters are just regular folks like you and me. Easy to identify and sympathize with.
Duel is a great thriller. It's a 90 minute ride to hell. As simple as it is effective.
Today a film such as this would be shot on a green screen set, and half the shots of the truck would be computer generated. This is why it's important to go back to the classics. Because the adrenalin rush of watching a chase like this, shot real-for-real, is unbeatable.
Duel also provides an early insight into a filmmaker taking his first steps towards the larger arena of feature film making. As such it is essential viewing.
Next up: It's heeeere!
This-Boy-is-a-Genius-O-Meter: 6/10. Now... Let's give him some more money and see what he can do.
Beard Factor: Mild. A small moustace.
Composition: 85% driving, 10% McCloud, 5% sandwich.
The Sound of Williams: Naught. Score is composed by Billy Goldenberg. And it's not really music it's mostly just noise.