Duel (1971) **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Richard Matheson based on his story.
Starring: Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Cafe Owner), Lou Frizzell (Bus Driver), Gene Dynarski (Man in Café), Lucille Benson (Lady at Snakerama), Tim Herbert (Gas Station Attendant), Charles Seel (Old Man), Shirley O'Hara (Waitress), Alexander Lockwood (Old Man in Car), Amy Douglass (Old Woman in Car), Dick Whittington (Radio Interviewer), Carey Loftin (The Truck Driver), Dale Van Sickel (Car Driver).
The plot of Duel is simple – David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a middle aged, office drone with a wife and kids at home, who has to drive up to see a client who is unhappy with his firm. He’ll mainly be on the backroads, and doesn’t think much of it. Early in the day, he gets stuck behind a giant truck, going slowly – so he will eventually pass him. This sets off, well, a duel, between the two drivers – the truck driver will not leave Mann alone, and chases him up and down the dusty backroads – up mountains, and down, and Mann simply put, cannot get away.
The screenplay was written by the legendary Richard Matheson, based on his own story. His skills are most on display during the one extended sequence that doesn’t take place inside the car with Mann. After the first, really dangerous chase sequence, Mann loses control, and nearly wrecks his car. He stops at a small-town diner to catch his breath and make a phone call. Next thing he knows, the truck – that he thought had taken off – is parked right outside. He looks around the café, and knows – just knows – that one of these men are the one trying to kill him. But he – and we – never see the driver’s face. He only knows his boots. It’s a wonderful sequence of mounting paranoia – we hear Mann’s inner monologue, as he appears more and more crazy. No one inside believes him – he looks like the crazy one.
For the most part though, the movie takes place on the road – just the truck and the car, in a game of cat and mouse. Even in this, his first film, Spielberg shows that he is a genius at action sequences. The ongoing car chase has an excitement that never falters, never waivers. It’s an exercise in skill that not everyone could pull off. How do you essentially make a 90 minute car chase, and keep it exciting?
To be honest, there really isn’t much of say about Duel. It’s an example of what a great director can do when almost everything is stripped away – you cannot say the plot, characters, dialogue in Duel is great, because they aren’t. They don’t need to be. This is a pure exercise in style – and shows just how good Spielberg was, right from the beginning. In three years he’d make his official debut – the fine Sugarland Express, a kind of Bonnie & Clyde knockoff, but a good (and good natured) one – and right after, Jaws and he became the biggest director in the world. Duel though still has a place in Spielberg’s filmography. Few directors could have pulled it off this well.