Duel (1971): Almost 50 years later, still one of the scariest movies ever made

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Steven Spielberg is in scant need of an introduction. The creator of the blockbuster, his work continues to mesmerise audiences with its themes of fantastical otherworlds and an innocent sense of wonder. JawsClose Encounters Of The Third KindRaiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T. and Jurassic Park are all phenomenally exciting hallmarks of seminality, and he as also proved a deft hand at the helm of historical epics that address social problems and atrocities, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad all being far more austere in tone than his earlier work, but equal in terms of ability to cast a spell.

Despite the man’s status as a singular household name, there remains a small handful of his works that are rightful cult hits and very well known among film nuts but are nowhere near as publically recognisable as the aforementioned titles. His superbly deranged 1979 wartime comedy 1941 featured a great Ackroyd-Belushi pairing one year before their iconic stint in Landis’ The Blues Brothers, and his theatrical debut, the offbeat 1974 crime drama The Sugarland Express, cemented the talent of Goldie Hawn in a loosely factual account of a wayward married couple on the run from authorities.

The very first film to get Spielberg into the public eye, as many of you will be aware, is Duel, a 1971 TV film that was so well-received by critics and those watching at home that it later got a theatrical release with additional scenes filmed after the fact. Frequently described as ‘Jaws with a truck’ but actually being so much more than that, Duel affirmed Spielberg as already being a master of the trade in his freshman venture, a psychological action thriller that feels very much like a horror in lieu of anything discernibly supernatural, and a work that still retains its power to raise your hairs in contemplation of what could be lying in wait for you out on the open road.

In the film’s opening, we are introduced to David Mann (Dennis Weaver) as he reverses out of his garage to begin an arduous drive for work-related matters. A harried and temperamental salesman, David has been contending with more than enough on his plate lately, friction with his wife exacerbated by his loss of temper with a lech whom he had to fend off of her at a party the night before. Weaver’s performance remains undersung as one that immediately communicates realistic and palpable stress.

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Ambling across the vast desert highways of California in his trusty red Plymouth Valiant, David encounters a filthy and monstrous-looking big rig in his path and promptly overtakes it. The seemingly miffed operator of the truck proceeds to bullet past him with a deafening roar and makes his objection explicit with an intimidating horn blast as David speeds past once again, thinking nothing more of it as it slowly shrinks in the rearview mirror.

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David proceeds to not think very much of the situation, even as the truck pulls up beside him during a brief stop at a filling station. Following close behind our hero as he continues the journey, the truck overtakes David and precariously blocks his path every time he attempts to get in front of it, before capriciously waving for him to take the lead, right into the path of an oncoming vehicle. What follows is just under 90 minutes of nerve-shredding, action-packed terror, Mr Mann realising all too late that the driver of this juggernaut, who up until now he has taken for a garden-variety prickly pear motorist, is actually a diabolical, mind-games loving psychopath. As if David’s affairs weren’t complicated enough, he now has a brand new, lethal enemy, one that wishes to make him rue the day he was born…should he live to rue it.

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Setting the bar for television films and never being exceeded, Duel remains a milestone of abject terror. The concept of the terrorised everyman, disbelieved by those around him as he is hunted by an unstoppable evil force, had been utilised many times before and replicated afterwards, in both instances with little to no similar effect. 2001’s heavily lifting horror Joy Ride may provide an ephemerally engaging waste of time and it unequivocally owes its existence to Duel, but it casts itself as a no-mark venture via too much preoccupation with thinly written, irritating characters and juvenile ultra-violence. David Mann is tailgated, rammed, double-bluffed and sadistically manipulated by a driver who actually remains unseen for the entirety of the picture, making the truck the true villain of the piece in a metaphorically demonic, Stephen King-like fashion (not wishing to detract in any way from the brilliance of the story’s creator, Richard Matheson).

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Poor David’s hapless plight is supplemented by the fact that he’s something of an interpersonally difficult individual. The film never loses its thread of garnering the viewer’s desperate empathy for him, but it’s easy to deduce why the majority of other characters that he interacts with are hesitant to lend him an ear, let alone anything else. He’s a conspicuously agitated and brooding sort, and there is an iota of unnecessary condescension in the air when he spells out ‘R-Y-E’ when specifying the variety of bread he’d like for a sandwich in a diner he stops at. He sweats profusely, jabbers and cradles his head in the onset of a migraine, so it’s not rocket science as to why the people he encounters in restaurants, rest stops and roadside attractions think he’s a potentially dangerous weirdo wandering the landscape. Prime meat for our malevolent trucker, there’s no reason to suspect that he hasn’t been doing this to other drivers for years, and having a pariah victim enables him to ramp up the intensity of his already malignantly intelligent game.

Billy Goldbenberg’s chilling soundtrack uniformly bolsters the work, terrifying strings and piano keys providing a spine-tingling, frenetic assault not dissimilar to the work of Carlos and Elkind in The Shining, along with more conventional but nevertheless pulse-skewering movements during the film’s iconic chase sequences. That terror is fortified by the excellent cinematography of Jack Marta, expertly infusing anxious quick cuts and incredibly imposing high-angle shots during the titular ‘duelling’ as well as humid close-ups in scenes where David’s paranoid inner monologue takes over, all under the crushingly oppressive heat of the California sun, though it might as well be anywhere.

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If there were anything explicit about Duel, it would be ruined. It is Spielberg’s Hitchcockian cue, placing you quite literally in the driver’s seat of paranoia and a possibly delirious protagonist, that truly underpins the consummate stress of the film. The truck driver is obviously of the intention of screwing with David’s head, but we’re left guessing as to what he actually wants. Is he just an extremely sick practical joker who gets off on rattling our hero? He could be someone with severe anger issues who wants to teach David a lesson about overtaking without necessarily doing him any mortal harm. These are questions that deliciously drive the viewer just as mad as David Mann, but in the final analysis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nobody would go to this much effort unless they were of the utmost sinister intent.

It was a little film that came on the box one night almost half a century ago that only took $450,000 to create, and it changed everything. It is so wondrously made that, despite Spielberg’s personal summary of the movie as ‘High Noon on wheels’, an abundance of critics have read allegories of class distinction and even biblical references into it. Weaver completely and utterly knocks it out of the park as David, a fitting name as the truck is very much his Goliath, only without the spectators, the pitiful, ostensible madman being all on his own in this fight. If you know this one, do me a favour and watch it again immediately. If you do not, do yourself the biggest of favours and strap yourself in, because this is one of the works that made me fall in love with film, and it deserves a torch carried by as many as possible forevermore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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