Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Steven Spielberg “Duel” has been at the top of my “To-Watch” list for some time now as it was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut for feature length films. “Duel” stars Dennis Weaver as David Mann, a salesman on his way to a meeting on the southern California desert highways when he passes a large gasoline truck. Thinking nothing of it, Mann goes about his way until the truck gets dangerously close and begins a dangerous duel- to the death!
This may be a TV movie from 1972, but it still holds up as a solid suspense-driven thriller. Clocking in at a clean 89 minutes for the theatrical version “Duel” mainly works as well as it does due to Spielberg’s keen eye for direction and staging. Throughout the film you can see the kernels of skill developing into what will become synonymous with a certain great white shark a few years from this release. Spielberg himself cites Hitchcock as his main influence for this tale of attempted vehicular manslaughter, and you can tell- particularly in the diner sequence in which Mann tries to identify his would-be killer once he notices the gnarly tanker truck parked outside. The film relies on little dialogue, the story is mostly told visually and this showcases Spielberg’s obvious talent even further. What really impressed me though was the details of the production.
Spielberg had to fight to shoot on location, the studio wanted the genre thriller shot on a sound stage in Hollywood, but he argued that an on-location shoot would be far more compelling for the audience as shooting inside on a stage would be obviously fake and therefore lose inherent value i.e. money. They bargained on the more difficult location shoot but pressed Spielberg for time. They would only have ten days for their production. According to interviews with Spielberg the shoot ended up going two or three days over, but that the studio execs were impressed enough with the amount and quality of shots that he got initially that they allowed it, begrudgingly. Spielberg stayed in a motel during the production and had wrapped his room in a bird’s eye view map of the entire production that worked as his storyboard, he didn’t even get to see the dailies of film as he didn’t have enough time to go back to the studio and check the work. After finishing the production he hired five editors to scramble and piece the thriller together as they only had three weeks from production to the air date.
In the end “Duel” is a comparable genre thriller that exceeds expectation due to the capable hands it was in. If you haven’t seen this one, give it a shot, with as short as it is the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and you get to see Dennis Weaver lose his mind as he’s being chased down by a giant killer semi-truck. Which is pretty damn entertaining in my opinion.
Final Score: 1 red valiant and a box of rattlesnakes