Thursday, September 22, 2011

Movie Review: Duel (1971)

"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.

The film opens with a nice long tracking shot of David's car backing out of his driveway, turning down the street and eventually entering the highway where his nightmare will start. The entire movie is actually filled with a nice variety of shots and shot compositions, which impressed me. I mean, how many different ways can you show this car following that car, the other car bumping into them, this car and that car driving down the highway... it could get extremely tedious and lose all the suspense that it so needed in a film like this.

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.

David's inner monologue starts to be presented as a voiceover after he starts to go a little crazy from almost being run off the road and killed. This dialogue reminded me a lot of Matheson's writing, and Dennis Weaver's performance of David in these scenes also reminded me of the way Vincent Price acted in another Matheson adaptation, The Last Man on Earth. The frenzied look in Weaver's eyes as he scopes out the truck drivers in the diner tells you everything about how this situation has affected him and sort of makes you think that he's not the kind of man that could deal with something like this.

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.


  1. I am going to see if Netflix has this so I can watch it. Thanks for the review!!

  2. Hi, Michele. I am a huge Spielberg fan, but must admit to you that, although I am certainly aware of this film, I have yet to see it. *slaps hand*
    One of these days I am going to have to rectify this error.
    Thanks for reminding me...


  3. Spielberg is easily my favorite living director, and of all the dead ones I only like Hitchcock as much. "Duel" is a masterpiece; it's his first movie, but there Spielberg is, fully-formed right out of the gate.

    I also highly recommend his first theatrical feature, "The Sugarland Express." It's got an incredibly annoying performance by Goldie Hawn, but otherwise is top-notch ... and if you can get on board with the fact that Hawn's playing the role that way because that's how the character is supposed to be seen, then even that becomes a virtue.

  4. one of the greatest movies of all time - I ADORE DUEL!!!!! :)

  5. It's been a good white since I watched this movie, I need to refresh my memory!

  6. Yay for Duel love! Such a primal, awesome film. It gives us a pathetic lead, and knows it...yet still makes us fear for him. That takes skills!

    As always, good work ma'am!

  7. I too think Duel is awesome. Not only that, I introduced my kids to ET and it's still one of the best films I've ever seen! Spielberg ain't perfect but he's still about the best we've got. I think of him as the film version of Stephen King.

  8. @Lulu: It's only on DVD at Netflix, but for sure give it a look.

    @James: If you're a Spielberg fan already, I think Duel will just make you love him all the more. I think his true talent is all right here, right in the beginning of his career.

    @Bryant: I've heard good things about Sugarland Express as well and I like the sound of the plot so I think I should look at it.

    @Maynard: I for sure adore it now, too! Fabulous debut.

    @Real Queen: Refresh it, then! I regret never having seen this before, I'm jealous of those that have known it for years.

    @The Mike: I knew you'd appreciate me showing some Duel love! I actually love that the lead is so pathetic because it really makes you root for him.

    @Mac: That's an interesting comparison to him as King. Is it the popularity thing?

  9. In my opinion, this is Steven Spielberg's best movie....
    Truly great. Thanks for reviewing it.

  10. Duel is a Masterpiece!!!

  11. I don't know if you've ever heard of it, but there is a short story called "Throttle" (written by Stephen King and Joe Hill) which is an homage to Richard Matheson's short story "Duel." It's really good; well worth checking out, and it would theoretically make a good movie in its own right.