"A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck and an open road." There have been plenty of ripoffs of this film premise in the past few decades but Duel is probably the granddaddy of them all. This television movie was Steven Spielberg's first feature length foray into the world of filmmaking, and a most successful one.
I've found in recent years that I tend to judge a director on their more earlier attempts than the movies they make after they have already become big names. Usually the first film means little money and little time to pull off an entire movie and make it good. True ingenuity and talent comes from working with limitations and overcoming them to get the best possible results.
I honestly haven't ever been the biggest fan of Steven Spielberg - though he has definitely made some films that I admire and love - but I could never quite see him like most others could, as one of the greatest directors ever. But now after seeing Duel, I believe in him. This is Spielberg stripped of the big budgets and the big name actors and showing us what he can really do behind the camera with a simple story, very little dialogue, and a long stretch of desert highway.
Duel tells the story of motorist David Mann being relentlessly pursued on the open road by an large diesel truck with an unseen driver. All David did, seemingly, was pass the slow-moving truck, which for a never explained reason makes the driver continually follow David closely, try to run him off the road, and follow him wherever he goes. This is based off of a short story written by Richard Matheson.
Yet Duel never lost the suspense for me. Even in the first 20 or so minutes when I thought the "dueling" scenes were getting a little boring, suddenly the music started picking up (and there's not a lot of music in the film) and the trucker started actually bumping David's car as his speed slowly crept toward a dangerous 100 mph... and I was into it.
The truck in Duel is obviously the second main character. It doesn't even really matter after a while that the driver is never seen, save for a hand or a pair of boots, because the truck itself starts to seem alive, a sentient thing whose only purpose is David's destruction. It is the lack of reasoning behind this that makes David go a little mad and what confuses and frustrates the audience. Why doesn't this truck leave him alone? Why doesn't David just start driving the other way? But what exactly can one do when confronted and threatened with this kind of unnamed and unprovoked violence?
In the end, the truck is finally destroyed in probably the longest slow motion crash ever captured on film. Even this part was suspenseful for me, though I figured the film was probably over, I was still sitting there in anticipation of what was to come, so tense in waiting for David to finally triumph. David finally rests and the sun sets behind him, his nightmare over. Duel is yet another example that some of the best and most hard-hitting movies can come from just three simple elements - a good story, good acting, and good directing - and not need a big budget or big names. This is a very impressive, and sadly little known, debut from one of the biggest names in Hollywood. And yeah, I guess I am more of a Spielberg fan now than I was before.