If you compiled a list of directors who have movies lost to time, Steven Spielberg probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. There are probably some of you reading this who instantly thought “Hey, I remember that movie!” For others, the thought may have been more like “What the hell is this?”
Fear not because I’m going to tell you.
Duel, a 1971 made-for-TV movie, marked Spielberg’s feature-length debut and, to be perfectly frank, is one of my favorite movies. I seem to recall that every New Year’s Eve I could find this movie playing on TV and I made sure to watch it every time. I would scan the channels looking for it; once I found it, I was locked in, no matter what point the movie was at.
Then, in the early (or maybe mid) 2000s, I found that it had been released on DVD. I was ecstatic and snagged a copy, heading home to watch it for the first time in years.
Over the years, I’ve been a bit surprised at the relatively few I have talked to who are familiar with the film, despite the famous auteur behind the camera. That said, let’s take a look at Duel and why I think you should check it out.
Just a Business Trip
Duel opens with POV shots from the front of a car as it pulls out of a driveway in a quiet neighborhood. The subsequent shots move through crowded city streets, onto the freeway, and eventually on to a two-lane highway.
The driver—David Mann—is driving to meet a client. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Along his drive, Mann finds himself behind a slow-moving tractor-trailer. He passes it up, only to have it retake the lead soon after. It’s an annoyance, but little more.
Our protagonist stops for gas, ruminating in the car as the attendant fills the tank. His train of thought is broken when the same truck pulls into the station. We don’t see the driver, who impatiently sounds his horn to get the attendant’s attention. We do, however, get a glimpse of the man’s boots as he walks along the far side of his rig.
Mann walks inside to call his wife, and it’s here that we get some insight into the character. His wife talks down to him and David makes no real effort to stand up for himself. He’s meek; weak-willed.
Back on the road, he continues his trip, free of traffic. Soon enough, the truck is back, coming up fast behind him. He’s overtaken before the truck drops back down to a much slower speed. Muttering in disbelief and growing agitation, David begins looking for an opportunity to retake his place in front of the lumbering behemoth.
Begin The Duel
The truck driver extends an arm out of the window, signaling to David that he’s clear to pass. Pressing down on the accelerator, he swings into the oncoming lane only to find a vehicle barreling towards him head-on. He quickly slides back in behind the truck, shaken and wondering just what the hell is going on.
His concern growing with his agitation, David sees a dirt path that serves as a loop road and swerves onto it. Accelerating as quickly as his Plymouth Valiant will allow, he’s able to rejoin the highway ahead of the truck. The unseen driver, in a show of displeasure, lays on the horn.
Things settle down, though only briefly, as David notices a sign advertising a place called Chuck’s Cafe. Soon enough, the truck is back on his bumper. Not content to continue their game of leapfrog, the driver bumps him.
With the enormous vehicle filling his rearview, David begins to panic, his eyes flitting wildly from the mirror to the road ahead. The truck continues to bump him, leading David to drive faster and faster. With the cafe approaching, David turns hard off of the road and skids into a wooden fence.
An old man leaving the cafe comes to check on David who says he’s fine. He tries to tell the good samaritan that the truck driver tried to kill him, drawing an incredulous response from the old man.
The Inner Strife
David makes his way into Chuck’s Cafe, shaken but okay. He cleans up in the restroom, musing over the strange turn the day has taken, before heading to a table. A glance out of the window stops him dead in his tracks: there, in the dirt lot, sits the truck.
David sits down as paranoia begins to really take hold. He scans the cafe patrons, paying particular attention to their footwear. His anxiety ratchets up as he tries to understand the situation, intent on identifying the homicidal driver he believes to be in the restaurant.
Trying to calm himself, he reasons that the driver may not be there to wait him out and continue terrorizing him. His theory? It’s lunchtime; perhaps this is the only place nearby to grab a bite. Unfortunately, his mind refuses to cooperate. He contemplates finding the driver to apologize for raising his ire, again showing the weakness that has ruled him.
Eventually, a man leaves the cafe and walks towards the truck, running his hand along the bumper before disappearing behind it. He’s not the driver, of course, and a moment later we see him drive away in a pickup.
Following this, David spots a pair of boots that seem to match the ones he saw earlier, leading him to approach the man wearing them. He confronts the man, who has no idea what this strange, nervous man is talking about. Things escalate and the pair scuffle, David taking the brunt of the abuse.
As it tries to collect himself, David hears the truck start and sees it pull back onto the highway. He attempts to chase it down on foot, his mania reaching a new level.
The Next Encounter
A disheveled David rejoins the highway, soon coming across a stranded school bus loaded with kids. After talking to the driver, he gets volunteered to use his car to try and push the immobilized bus. This, naturally, doesn’t go well and his front bumper becomes lodged underneath the rear bumper of the bus.
While the driver helps David free his car, we see the truck approach slowly before stopping in a tunnel. David gets out of his car and we’re given a great shot when he sees the driver, his truck shadowed in the tunnel, turn his headlights on. Yes, sir, I see you too.
The truck approaches slowly while David frantically tries to free his car. He makes his escape, looking back long enough to see the truck pull behind the bus and push it free. David is left confused, though hardly believing the driver’s benevolent display.
A short time later, David is held up by a passing freight train when he feels a bump.
The truck is back, pushing the red Plymouth towards the moving train. David cries out to the mystery driver to no avail and, as the train passes, he crosses the tracks before driving onto the raised shoulder. The truck passes, it’s horn once again honking as it drives away.
A series of wide shots, filled by the sounds of nature, show David once again progressing on his journey. A great low shot shows him crest a hill, followed by a close up showing his reaction when he finds the truck plodding along ahead of him.
Instead of trying to pass again, David pulls into a small gas station to use the phone. The truck driver, fully engaged in his game of cat and mouse, pulls off onto the shoulder. David walks around the building to use a phone booth (they used to exist!) to call the police. As he tries to explain the situation, the truck turns around and barrels into the booth, nearly hitting David.
It circles around a few times, horn blaring before David is able to get back to his car and drive off. Naturally, the truck continues its pursuit. Faced with the increased danger, David turns off of the highway, going down an embankment to find refuge on a side street out of the truck driver’s view. Determined to let the truck make up as many miles as possible, David drifts off to sleep.
The Final Showdown
David wakes up abruptly thanks to an air horn, only it isn’t the truck; to his relief, it’s only a train. Satisfied that enough time has passed, David resumes his course, though he soon finds the truck waiting along the side of the road. Seeing this, David skids to a stop before pulling onto the opposite shoulder.
David floors it though he is quickly cut off by the truck. David turns back, returning to a perch on the shoulder. Likewise, the truck backs up and off the road. David gets out and walks to the asphalt, staring at the truck intently and he walks towards it.
He’s finally snapped and you can’t help but feel relief at the fact that he’s saying to hell with fear. As his footsteps speed up, the truck pulls onto the road and drives away, covering a short distance before stopping again.
David flags down an elderly couple for help only to have them flee in terror when they see the truck accelerating in reverse towards them. With the rig backing towards his own car, David retreats up a hill, watching as the truck stops before returning to its original position on the side of the road.
The message is clear—come on, pal, let’s get back to our game—and David obliges, returning to his car and slowly approaching the truck. Again, we see the driver’s arm, once again waving David past.
With the truck looming behind him, David pushes his car harder and harder as they approach a mountain pass. Naturally, the rig won’t be able to maintain its speed through the climb, a fact that David tries to use to his advantage. It’s a solid plan, and it seems to work until his car finally gives in to the excess wear and abuse its been submitted to.
With the summit in sight, steam pours from the wounded car’s hood and grille. David, adrenaline on overload, screams at the car, willing it to reach the top. It’s a frenetic moment, framed with close-ups that perfectly encapsulate the claustrophobia that’s present despite the vast expanse of the land around the combatants.
I won’t give away the ending. A summary is one thing, and I don’t believe that anything I’ve written will detract from your enjoyment, but the ending is off-limits. Believe me, it’s worth it.
Why You Should Watch Duel
The two biggest selling points I can use are that Spielberg directed and the screenplay was written by the incomparable Richard Matheson (based off of one of his short stories).
Perhaps that’s not enough to sway you. Okay, have it your way. The film comes in at 90 minutes (for the theatrical cut; the original TV broadcast was 74 minutes) and that runtime is devoted to the story. There’s no filler to be found. It’s a simple story that’s told incredibly well. The cinematography is excellent, as is the score.
Dennis Weaver is outstanding in the lead role, selling Mann’s journey from a meek, unremarkable man to someone that is transformed by being forced to face probable death at the hands (wheels?) of a psychopath.