Duel The Little Movie That Could
By Kristin Battestella
Long before he had aliens phoning home or singing high notes, Steven Spielberg was an upstart Director just like everyone else. His feature length television debut, 1971’s Duel, was a little film that could, would, and still does captivate audiences.
Salesman David Mann has his problems. He’s on his way to a business meeting, but he left a little squabble at home. He is truly the seventies everyman, from his striped tie and beat up car to his generic name itself. All goes awry when Mann makes the mistake of passing a grimey 40 ton tanker.
The film begins slow, echoing a ho-hum mundane salesman’s existence. Silly radio and music date the film for today’s audience, but they also add to Duel’s appeal. I suspect people still make movies with nothing but a camera and a truck, but they aren’t any good. This low budget nostalgia is now often replicated. The most recent film that comes to mind is Joy Ride, starring Paul Walker and Leelee Sobieski. Big effects, accidents, and kinky radio conversations cannot equal Spielberg’s camera shots, tight zooms, or gritty look and feel.
Of all Spielberg’s cut and angles, my favorite scene is the café sequence. After being run off the road by the fuel tanker goner berserk, Mann takes refuge in a roadside diner. Her orders water, aspirin, and Swiss cheese on rye, then sits down to contemplate the situation. (Not only did he get aspirin, but later it seems Mann neglects to pay for the meal!) The voiceovers of Mann’s desperate thoughts are a bit hokey, but there really is no other way to show his despair. The fact that he is absolutely alone deepens his fears. Who can he tell? No one would believe him. Spielberg expertly shows Mann’s terror when he realizes the driver of the crazed oil tanker is also in the diner. Mann frantically scans every patron with nothing to identify the driver but a pair of brown cowboy boots.
I’m sure Spielberg used the same camera shots more than once, but his optical tricks of the high speed chase get you in the moment. You know it didn’t take much, but it looks creepy enough. Besides, anybody who’s seen something a little scary in his rearview mirror can relate. Only Steven Spielberg can make a movie about road rage so terrifying. Of course, years later he would make audiences afraid of their goldfish via Jaws.
Dennis Weaver’s portrayal of Mann is spot on as well. With little dialogue, he and the movie makers carefully use his look and actions to show the frazzled state of this terrorized motorist. He began with a perfect tie and smooth car, but Mann ends wounded, sweaty, shaking. Even his brief case becomes part of his plan to rid himself of this Tanker possessed.
The subtle clues given to the Tanker also adds surprising depth to this unique character. Six license plates grace the front grill of the machine monster. Are these conquests from other traveling salesmen? We never know the crazy driver’s motivation. What tipped him off? What’s really inside the tanker? This lack of information is frightening in itself when you’re dealing with any foe.
Unfortunately, I was slightly disappointed in Duel’s ending, but the close leaves much to interpretation. After other passers by deem Mann psychotic and refuse to help him, even if he does survive this spectacle-where can he go? The tanker’s end is as sudden as its rage, and Mann is left stranded to contemplate his fate. I would have rather seen a final bout with the mysterious and infamous truck driver, but I digress.
I was surprisingly pleased with Robert Matheson’s screenplay from his own short story. A few run and gun sequences go on longer than they should, and a scene with Mann trying to help a stuck school bus has a few silly moments. Duel works in spite of its simplicity. For a movie you expect to find on basic cable at 3 a.m., Duel will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Is Duel as stellar as Spielberg’s Oscar powerhouses like Schindler’s List or adventurous like fan favorite Raiders of the Lost Ark? No. On the other hand, Duel did win an editing Emmy and was nominated for a Best TV Movie Golden Globe. Movie buffs and film making enthusiasts will enjoy seeing Spielberg’s rise to the top. The Behind the Scenes features and interviews found on Duel’s Collector’s Edition DVD provide more insights as well. Duel’s genius in its simplicity is enough to inspire any amateur or budding filmmaker to pick up his camera. If you feel so inspired, do stay safe and use your Hot Wheels.