“There you are, right back in the jungle again.”
It’s hard to believe, watching it now, that Duel was the first theatrically released film that Steven Spielberg had ever directed. It’s masterfully filmed, with a lot of the hallmarks Spielberg would become famous for already present (the constantly moving camera, the long takes, the themes of normal people in extraordinary circumstances, even the car mirror shots he’d later use in Jurassic Park). It’s a lean 89 minutes and there’s not a single moment of film wasted. The statement about it being Spielberg’s first theatrical release comes with a few caveats however. It’s true that it was the first film directed by Spielberg to be released in cinemas, but initially it was simply a TV movie in America. The film was 74 minutes long and premiered as part of ABC’s Movie of the Week in 1971. Studio execs loved it, and so did audiences. The film gained an international cinema release, complete with 15 minutes of extra footage shot by Spielberg after Duel had aired on ABC, where it gained rave reviews (especially here in the UK). A full scale US cinema release didn’t actually come until 1983 but there’s no doubt; Duel is the film that put Spielberg on the path to becoming one of the most renowned and successful directors in the history of film making.
Duel has been lovingly restored for it’s 50th Anniversary by Fabulous Films and features almost an hour of bonus features and new cover art by Graham Humphreys, which is reminiscent of the poster artwork of the 70s. The cover art is also included as a fold out poster too, which I thought was a cool touch. The extras themselves aren’t new; I remember watching them on my old DVD copy of Duel years ago. But they’re still a great watch and offer loads of insight into the film, especially the interview with Spielberg himself. The biggest draw of this release is the Blu ray picture quality, is is phenomenal. The picture is crisp and bright and clear whether the scene is in the scorching desert or a dingy little diner. There are some shots that look so good, it’s hard to believe they were filmed half a century ago. This does seem to the same copy of the film that’s been around a few years now but it’s always been difficult to obtain in the UK (except in an overpriced Spielberg box set) so at under £10, this new release is a must buy.
The film follows David Mann, played by the late great Dennis Weaver, a man down on his luck with his wife and with a job so boring we don’t even find out what it is. He’s on a commute across California for some never-explained job reason when he makes a seemingly small decision to overtake a rusty old truck out on the desert highway. The truck blasts his horn back at Mann and overtakes his small, red Plymouth valiant. Mann, pissed off and full of road rage, overtakes the truck again and leaves him behind in a trail of dust. After a stop at a gas station, the truck reappears and begins to tailgate Mann and, after overtaking him, almost pushes Mann into the path of an oncoming car. From then on out, it becomes a murderous game of cat and mouse between the big, rusted Peterbilt truck and Mann’s small Plymouth.
Written by famed science fiction and horror writer, Richard Matheson, and based on one of his short stories, the core concept of Duel is ‘powerless man pisses off crazy truck driver’. The film has always scared me, ever since I first saw it as a kid. But as I’ve grown up and become an adult, had boring jobs, learnt to drive, the film now terrifies me. And as a driver who commutes, let me tell you, I’ve definitely fell victim to the futile road rage Mann suffers from. But you don’t have to be a driver to see yourself in Mann, or share in his marital struggles or his work woes. We’ve all been David Mann at one point or another in our lives – feeling powerless and small and impotent, at work, in our lives, our relationships. Spielberg makes Mann’s powerlessness clear to the audience by having Mann being repeatedly emasculated, and he isn’t subtle about it. From the radio host during the films opening discussing his wife being the head of the household, to Mann’s wife telling him she wishes he’d done something when one of his colleagues made a pass at her the night before. There’s little things too, like Mann ordering tap water and a cheese sandwich in the diner while all the other men drink beer and eat burgers. There’s even the very obvious phallic vehicle allegory; Mann’s tiny, under-performing car vs the big powerful truck. So like I said, it’s not particularly subtle. But it makes for great storytelling, and quickly gets you on Mann’s side. There’s a lot that could be said for the films portrayal of masculinity but it’s certainly not promoting the type masculinity represented by the psychotic truck driver or the gross, sweaty ‘good ol’ boys’ who occupy the diner. I don’t think the film is a criticism of Mann either, I think Spielberg and Matheson recognised that Mann was a pretty realistic portrayal of the modern man. After all, him literally being called ‘Mann’ wasn’t an accident.
Weaver is fantastic in the starring role, carrying the whole film on his shoulders. He plays the every man extraordinarily well; you feel for him and relate to him but you never pity him. His triumphant slaying of the truck at the end of the film is a wonderful moment and you share in his celebration. He also does sweaty, nervous anxiety really well, which was why Spielberg hired him after seeing his performance as the anxious Night Manager in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Weaver does a lot of the driving and stunts in the film too, which really help sell it. For the majority of the film it is just Mann as well, acting against the truck rather than the driver, who we never see. Mann’s plight is accompanied by a voice over, which I really liked. A lot of the dialogue is lifted pretty closely from the original Matheson short story. Weaver acts out Mann’s anxiety physically but the voice over lets us in to his world while never having to shoehorn in an unnecessary conversation scene between Mann and someone. Mann is entirely alone in this desert world, full of greasy hicks and weird roadside freaks (the snake lady is my favourite) and may as well be on a different planet to the comfortable Californian suberb we see him leave at the beginning of the film.
Duel is a must watch if you’re a fan of Spielberg. It’s got all of his usual hallmarks and makes a great double feature with his best film, Jaws (the truck in Duel and the shark in Jaws even share the same roar). But I’d recommend it highly even if you’re just after a fantastic and taut thriller. From the acting to the directing to the sparse Billy Goldenberg score; everything about it is pitch perfect. Despite it’s original TV movie trappings, the film is pure, edge-of-your-seat cinema. Duel deserves to be remembered as one of Spielberg’s greatest.
Reviewed by Tom