Film Review: Duel (1971)

Release Date: November 10th, 1971 (Canada)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Richard Matheson
Based on: Duel by Richard Matheson
Music by: Billy Goldenberg
Cast: Dennis Weaver

ABC, Universal Pictures, 90 Minutes (theatrical cut), 74 Minutes (original television cut)

Review:

“The Killer’s Weapon – A 40 Ton Truck” – tagline

I have seen Duel in some form or in increments at least two dozen times. When I was a kid it was on TBS almost weekly. I always caught it in the middle, so I never really knew how the beef started in the film between the psycho in a truck and the wimpy salesman in a car, played by Dennis Weaver. However, the set up never really seemed to matter to me because this tapped into some sort of primal fear and eventually, into survival mode taking over. It wasn’t until now, in 2018, that I actually sat down and saw this thing in its entirety from start to finish.

The one thing that is the most amazing to me, is that this was originally a television movie. It has the production value of something much larger and it felt authentic to the trucker and car heavy movies of the time. This was shot incredibly well and the action was intense and real. They certainly couldn’t rely on CGI back then so the destruction you see is real destruction. The big final crash was incredible, as was the scene where the truck is doing doughnuts, bulldozing the reptile exhibit in an effort to prevent Dennis Weaver’s David Mann from calling the cops.

Spielberg showed great promise with this film, which was instrumental in him having the opportunity to make Jaws a few years later. While the film is action heavy, Spielberg showed incredible skill in story telling and employed a “less is more” strategy when building tension and suspense. This is a horror film and a thriller at its core but it is also a mystery film where the mystery actually goes unanswered. Who is this killer driver? Why is he so pissed off? But I guess it’s the not knowing why that makes this so impactful.

The part in the middle of the film where David is in the diner, analyzing all the men inside, trying to determine which one is the maniac trucker is slow, methodical and really drawn out. But it is done so to great effect and it is really the strongest and most important moment in the film. It’s the turning point where David gives in to his overwhelming paranoia and goes a bit nuts. And as intense as things were before the diner scene, that scene amplifies everything moving forward and the second half is a giant, uncomfortable ball of tension and terror.

On paper, you would think that a movie about a driver in a car being chased down by a killer truck is pretty one dimensional and stupid. While it is one dimensional, that is where the film finds its strength. It also addresses the fact that the truck is unusually fast. For whatever reason, David can’t outrun the hunter and that taps into a primal fear all living things have. The film really works well as metaphor and the ridiculous premise doesn’t really matter when things get going and you find yourself glued to this picture.

Duel is not a masterpiece or even a great film but it is a pivotal moment in the early career of Steven Spielberg and his imprint is all over the picture. Dennis Weaver had the tough task of carrying the entire film on his back but he was able to conquer that task with his superb performance and ability to feel like a genuine everyman, trapped in a mortal game of cat and mouse with a vicious and unrelenting predator.

I love this film. It’s badass, still kicks ass and was the real genesis of one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, who would go on to shape an entire era of not just filmmaking but pop culture itself.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Another early Spielberg film, The Sugarland Express. Also pairs well with a myriad of car and trucker films from the ’70s and early ’80s, as well as the Stephen King film adaptations of Maximum Overdrive and Christine.