Duel (1971)

Even if Duel – the second feature by then-up-and-coming director Steven Spielberg – had only its tight B-movie style to distinguish itself, that would be enough. Crafted to elicit maximum visceral impact, with ingenious shifting between POV and wide shots stitched together through razor-sharp editing, this is a breathtaking thriller in which style is substance: the point of the movie is to assault the viewer through flawless suspense, and in that mission Duel is undeniably successful.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Runtime: 74 minutes (original); 90 minutes (theatrical)

US Television Premiere: November 13, 1971 (ABC)

US Theatrical Release: April 22, 1983 (Universal Pictures)

Originally broadcast on ABC as part of its Movie of the Week series, Duel harkens back to classic B movies like The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952) and The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955): no-nonsense genre films with hardly a superfluous moment. (Indeed, the only parts of Duel that feel like filler are those that were added to pad out the original 74-minute running time to a theatre-worthy 90 minutes – e.g., the school bus scene and that in which David calls his wife in a convenience store.) Whatever these films lack in thematic substance, they more than make up for in visual ingenuity, which some would argue is the essence of cinema anyway. (The early Surrealists, for example, hated anything resembling a deep theme or literary prestige; for them, in the silent era of the 1910s and ’20s, it was all about the radiant image and the uncanny excitement of this most populist art form.)

The concept of Duel is simple: a salesman named David Mann (that name isn’t a coincidence) starts driving his red Plymouth Valiant through the Mojave Desert on his way to a business meeting. Almost immediately, he’s pursued by a madman driving a monstrous Peterbilt 281 semi truck, which tries to run David off the road, into oncoming traffic, onto railroad tracks as a train approaches…basically any way that David and his nice red car end up smashed all over the asphalt. The film is entirely devoted to this cat-and-mouse pursuit, which is never explained and is all the more unsettling for its nonsensicality.

What makes the film even more illogical is the fact that we never get a good look at the killer behind the wheel of the truck; we see him only in fractured pieces (a cowboy boot here, an arm hanging out the window there) and vague outlines. Because of this sense of mystery and obscurity (which Spielberg would use to classic effect in his breakout movie, 1975’s Jaws), Duel presents not a human driver as the malevolent force, but the truck itself: an amalgamation of metal and machine, somehow rampaging across the California highways.

Spielberg took great care to make the truck itself the villain: the 1955 Peterbilt 281 was “cast” because its elongated cab resembled a face, and its sound effects partially consisted of a dinosaur roar lifted from The Land Unknown (1957). The sinister implication that the truck has a mind of its own not only qualifies Duel to be part of Camp Kaiju; it’s also integral to the unique power of the film, which appears simple and concise on the surface but contains a hint of the supernatural, the inexplicable, that continues to entrance audiences.

What does the truck represent? The horrors of industrial capitalism, a machine that won’t stop until it destroys everything in its path (including itself)? The class system in America, with blue collar pitted against white collar? The mechanization of human life, in which we’ve become inseparable from the technologies that surround us? The most pointed theme in the movie seems to revolve around masculinity: our protagonist, Mr. Mann, has a tense phone call with his wife in which he apologizes for not defending her honor at a dinner party the previous night, and a throwaway scene near the beginning has a radio caller lamenting the fact that he’s no longer the breadwinner for his own household. As such, David’s showdown with the big, hulking, phallic truck could be a reclamation of his own manhood. But these readings strike me as overly literal (and at the same time overly loose). Screenwriter Richard Matheson (who also wrote the short story on which the film is based) and Spielberg hint at possible interpretations but don’t overplay their metaphorical hand. The unsettling abstraction of the film works best in unspecific terms: it’s simply and profoundly a nightmare scenario in which a banal and everyday artifact rises above its human counterpart. (To go back to the Surrealists in the early days of cinema, such as Louis Aragon and Andre Breton: they loved how commonplace items like billboards and cigarette packs could be made alive and menacing through the film camera, a transformative power that Spielberg, in Duel and nearly all of his films, fully embraces.)

It’s no surprise that Duel served as a calling card for Spielberg, who would go on to make The Sugarland Express (1974) and then Jaws: shot in only about 12 days, the production of Duel was a brilliantly choreographed endeavor, using careful planning to ensure the made-for-TV movie came in under budget and on schedule. (Spielberg describes how the “storyboarding” was done in a motel room with a model of the entire location taking up much of the space, allowing him, cinematographer Jack Marta, and the rest of the crew to plot out the shoot precisely.) Expert craftsmanship aside, though, Duel remains thrilling and menacing due to a dark and uncanny subtext that pulses just below the genre-entertainment surface. As often happens in kaiju movies, the central antagonist – in this case, a truck – rages with both predatory and metaphoric power. Whatever it means, it pursues its human target with single-minded, exhilarating purpose.

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