Steven Spielberg’s DUEL
Four years before the release of his blockbuster hit JAWS, Steven Spielberg was hired on to direct DUEL (1971) an ABC TV Movie of the Week (released theatrically overseas) based on a short story by Richard Matheson which was inspired by a real life incident. The film starred Dennis Weaver (Touch of Evil) as mild mannered salesman David Mann who is driving up the California coast unaware of the danger that awaits him.
As Mann happily cruises along in his red Plymouth Valiant listening to the radio, he encounters a large tanker truck on the road. Mann later stops at a gas station to call his wife (Jacqueline Scott) and the truck pulls in right next to him. Weaver’s Mann is set up as a bit of a wimp who isn’t good at confrontations as we learn from the phone call. This detail is what makes the film really grab you from the start. He then continues on his way up the coast but soon realizes that the tanker truck driver (who we never see) is out to get him as it continuously blocks the road or tailgates his car.
During a high speed chase trying to outrun the psychotic trucker, Mann loses control and crashes his car near a roadside diner. He hurts his neck, so he smartly decides to take a break and grab a bite. With his paranoia increasing about this predicament, Mann begins talking to himself. The hyper voiceover delivered by Dennis Weaver is both comical and very effective as it lets us in on his thoughts and presents a way for him to ask questions without talking to anyone. As he quietly sits by himself (eating a cheese sandwich on R-Y-E) going over the situation in his head, Mann suddenly notices the tanker truck parked outside. He carefully looks around the establishment trying to guess who the driver might be. When he finally settles on the culprit, it gets him in more hot water as the unassuming person isn’t the one he’s after.
Mann comes across a stalled schoolbus and tries to assist with pushing the large vehicle but only gets his small car’s front end stuck underneath the back bumper. The bratty children all make faces at him from inside which only increases the tension. When the truck appears, he frantically warns the bus driver about the trucker out to kill him but is met with dismissive insults about his mental state. When the diabolical trucker helps get the bus moving again, it just flips the mood once again and has you wondering what is going on. Mann stops at a lot where a phone booth is sitting next to some animal cages to get his radiator hose fixed and call the cops. While he talks on the phone to the police, the truck comes roaring up from behind at full speed and destroys the glass cases holding various snakes and tarantulas. The trucker makes another destructive pass through the debris just to make his point clearer. Now fully terrified for his life, Mann doesn’t know which way to run. He must break free of the hellish juggernaut on his trail but his small compact car is almost ready to quit on him.
Looking back on it now, DUEL was essentially a direct precursor to JAWS, in that it had a stalking killer truck instead of a killer shark. Steven Spielberg also used Hitchcockian methods (camera placement, editing) in both films to crank up the suspense and thrills to get as much as he could from the straight forward plots. The airtight pacing, intense action sequences, screwy humor and a timeless quality is what gives this film such a strong impact 47 years later. It now holds a place as one of the greatest TV movies ever made as well as an edge of your seat road thriller par excellence.