Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.
In 1971, Steven Spielberg released Duel, based on the 1971 short story of the same name by Richard Matheson. Starring Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Carey Loftin, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell, Eugene Dynarski, Lucille Benson, Tim Herbert, Charles Seel, Shirley O’Hara, Alexander Lockwood, Amy Douglass, Sweet Dick Whittington, and Dale Van Sickel, the film was made for television and had no box office gross.
Businessman David Mann is driving across the California desert on a business trip and encounters a tanker truck travelling below the speed limit and expelling sooty exhaust. The two overtake each other multiple times before the latter makes numerous attempts to kill Mann.
While it was made for television, Duel feels theatrical. If it included breaks for commercials, they were done so well and subtly, making the film flow perfectly from scene to scene. Further, the tension felt throughout hardly ever lets up. Whether its Mann entering a diner to collect himself following his crash into a fence or when the truck shows up as he’s attempting to help a school bus, there is always a sense of dread as if something is about to happen. Had there been commercials interspersed during the film, the tension would keep viewers interested in seeing the outcome upon its return.
The plot within is one seen in many suspense films, a person being hounded by someone or something sinister, yet it’s an enticing one. Here, Mann is trying to get home to a wife he’s had an argument with after a long business trip and just wants to pass a slow-moving truck with noxious exhaust. However, the truck won’t oblige and after a stop at a gas station, repeatedly tries to kill Mann in one way or another. There are times in the film where it feels like the truck could be Mann’s imagination, though it’s proven not to be the case as it helps the aforementioned school bus get back on the road and crashes into some reptile terrariums.
Not much is known about Mann, other than he’s some sort of business man who had an argument with his wife. In spite of not knowing much about him, nothing else is needed in order to connect with him as he works to escape a truck out for his blood. At one point, his radiator tube breaks during an uphill climb and despite the audience not knowing very much about this person, there is still a feeling of wanting him to succeed getting to the summit. Moreover, over the course of the film, he transforms from a subdued businessman to a man determined not to die at the wheels of this truck. It’s very noticeable when comparing him at the film’s beginning and end, but the changes throughout are slight making it so his journey from meek to resolute is believable.
As for the truck, considering only the driver’s arm and boots are show, it’s a character unto itself and a sinister force all its own. The truck waits for Mann to come out of the diner and when he doesn’t, it drives off to give him a false sense of security. Additionally, it has many different license plates from different states on its bumper, presenting the idea that the truck has done something like this before, succeeded in killing those drivers and collecting their plates as trophies. It’s a perfect villain.
The cinematography is great for a film airing on television as well. Shots from the truck’s grill give it an imposing demeanor, which help in making it such a great villain. In one scene, Mann has pulled off to the side of the road behind an embankment, hoping the truck will drive far away and he falls asleep. The camera lingers on him, showing him falling asleep. Seconds later, a loud noise is heard and he panics, only for the camera to pan to the side, showing the source to be a train running next to him. Used after so many run-ins with the truck, it’s a good fake out.
bold indicates reception of award/recognition
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA – Saturn Awards
- Best DVD/Blu-Ray Collection (As part of the “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection”)
- Best DVD Classic Film Release
Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival
- Grand Prize
Golden Globe Awards
- Best Movie Made for TV
Primetime Emmy Awards
- Outstanding Achievement in Film Sound Editing
- Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Entertainment Programming – For a Special or Feature Length Program Made for Television
Taormina International Film Festival
- Best First Film
- Golden Charybdis
Zia Uddin from UK on January 13, 2019:
I still have this movie on videotape, a great classic of Steven Spielberg.