Retrospective: Duel (1971)

Duel is the first movie Steven Spielberg directed and one of the reasons he has such a great reputation. In his first film you can see some of his patterns and traits which would become part of his style in movies such as Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park. You see lots of the common ideas of an everyman being stuck in invidious positions against huge, inhuman things. In this movie’s case it’s about a travelling salesman versus a huge old truck which attempts to kill him throughout the movie.

The movie has a strong and simple idea which is very American. It’s essentially about the long drives necessary to get across the country and how you can feel overpowered on your attempt to drive across the country due to the isolation and distance. This is done very straightforwardly with most of the shots being centered around the car (a 1971 Plymouth Valiant) and or the Peterbilt truck which is stalking the car, with no clear shots of the truck’s driver, making it look like some sort of demonic machine. The film features lots of clear shots of the car’s driver, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a typical man who in what would become a Spielbergian trait, understands the importance of family. Mann is followed by this truck that keeps trying to overtake him into a petrol station. Here Spielberg uses a method which I rather like known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ in which he’s alerted to a dodgy radiator hose that needs replacing but fails to follow the advice with dramatic consequences later. As Chekhov says: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Alas, the same is true of radiator hoses.

This movie has very humble origins as it was originally a made-for-TV-movie, based off the experiences of a scriptwriter who was being tailgated. The success that it had then turned it into a feature film, which is rather rare with new scenes shot and expletives added. The truck is very cleverly shot from a variety of different angles and looks extremely malevolent especially as the most you can see of the truck drive are his hands and at times his feet so his motivations are unknown and the protagonist’s voiceover tries to figure out why the truck driver is making these murderous attempts on his life.

Spielberg is quite obviously inspired by Hitchcock in this movie as at times he even borrows large amount of the soundtrack from Psycho with the sharp violin notes and like Hitchcock he instinctively knows what makes a good thriller: it is ambiguity and a sense of the unknown with lots of focus on the character. He isn’t a particularly sympathetic character and seems short tempered and spineless, exhibiting a certain degree of paranoia but since you’re with him for the whole journey you are with him both physically and metaphorically. You’re kept guessing for most of the movie which is impressive for such a young film maker and it’s a joy spotting so many early-Spielberg traits.

Although this movie looks quite dated with the cars, hair and clothes, the film-making and story are not. Despite being simple and cheaply made, it is remarkably effective and very atmospheric, achieving the successful skill of getting you to sympathize with a character despite all of his faults and racketing up the tension.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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