Peter’s Retro Reviews: Duel (1971)

September 23, 2011

by Peter Nielsen

David Mann is an ordinary businessman on his way to an ordinary appointment with a client on an ordinary day. Or rather… that’s what he thinks! On the road he comes across a slow-moving, beat-up tanker-truck which he overtakes, only to have it roar past him a couple of minutes later.

It gets in front of him and slows down, so David promptly overtakes it again. Well behind him the truck-driver blare his horn and this is kind of the moment when David Mann’s day turns bad.

Hello and welcome back to yet another edition of this trucker-special. This week I’ll take a closer look at the directorial debut of a very well-known director… namely Steven Spielberg. (Perhaps you’ve heard of him?) And what a debut this was! It’s an intense thriller that’ll have you on the edge of your seat, more or less the whole time through it.

The chase is on!

The chase is on!

Even at this early stage in his career, Mr. Spielberg knew how to deliver the thrills. Looking at some of the successful movies he’s since directed, we all know what an accomplished moviemaker he is, but even in this you see the potential in him. The shots are set up perfectly and with his brilliant direction, even the simplest of scenes are turned into “nail-biters”. He also uses the beautiful and vast desert scenery very well.

In the role of David Mann, Steven Spielberg chose Dennis Weaver, who’s known from the hit TV-show McCloud. He also starred alongside James Arness on the show Gunsmoke and had a role in Centennial, so he’s mostly worked in television.

Mr. Weaver is absolutely perfect in Duel. He’s just an everyday man who’s suddenly thrown into a completely uncontrollable situation and don’t really know how to handle it. No one believes him and to the people in the diner he comes off as “slightly unhinged” or downright psychotic, even.

NOW would be a good time to hang up.

NOW would be a good time to hang up.

Oh, and by the way… the scene in the diner is almost painful to watch. Not because it’s bad, but because the tension is so thick you can almost cut it with a knife. David Mann’s just been in a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase with the truck and crashes into the parking-lot. He stumbles into the diner, naturally all shaken up, and asks for the bathroom so he can freshen up a little.

When he comes out he spots the truck outside… Waiting! All of a sudden everybody in the diner is a suspect, and the scene that follows is sheer brilliance. As he slowly looks at everybody and they in turn look at him, we see him slowly falling apart, trying to figure out what to do next. Should he just drive on? ‘Cause he sure as hell can’t confront the driver, since he don’t know who it is, and if he DID know, would he?

He’s just not that type of person, as has been established from a telephone-conversation he had with his wife in an earlier scene. And what the hell COULD you do? Call the police? Is there any reason why they should believe you? No, there isn’t, ‘cause you have no proof! You’re more or less on your own here.

Now that's one scary truck.

Now that’s one scary truck.

As the movie progresses he gets more and more desperate, since no matter what he does the truck’s always one step ahead… or behind, depending on the circumstance! It’s always there… waiting… taunting him! And the beauty of it all is, that we never get an explanation as to why the truck-driver does this, which makes it all the more terrifying.

Some people have compared Duel to the great thrillers made by Sir Alfred Hitchcock and I have to agree with them. It does have a hitchcockian feel to it and in my book that’s a great compliment.

The writer of Duel is Richard Matheson who’s written some good screenplays and also did a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as publishing some great novels and short stories. Does The (Incredible) Shrinking Man, Hell House or I am Legend ring any bells? They’ve all been adapted for the big screen and I am Legend has been adapted no less than three times!

So, in conclusion I’ll say that if you take one great writer and one very promising director, you’ll end up with a superb and very suspenseful thriller, one that I highly recommend. If for nothing else, then just to see where Spielberg’s career started.

Well my friends, we’re almost at road’s end with this trucker-theme. Next week I’ll round it up with the Stephen King adaptation Maximum Overdrive which will lead us nicely into October and as you all know… October is all about horror here on Forgotten Flix!

Until next time…


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