A Californian motorist (Dennis Weaver) becomes the target of a monstrous and anonymous truck, in Steven Spielberg’s 1971 made-for-television film Duel – adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story.
It is an interesting step in Spielberg’s career. While his feature film debut was The Sugarland Express in 1974, Duel was so popular and well-reviewed on its initial ABC broadcast that Universal Pictures elected to distribute the film internationally through cinemas rather than television. Certainly it more than stands up to the quality expected of a feature film: sparsely populated, stripped down to its most essential components, and edited and paced in a non-stop, high-tension fashion. As an example of the director’s early work, it clearly points to a hugely successful future career. At the time of directing Duel, Spielberg had assembled a reasonably resume of television episodes, including those in Night Gallery, Marcus Welby MD, and Colombo. Duel presented a early chance to demonstrate his potential at directing feature films, and he clearly grabbed the opportunity with both hands. (A previous feature-length TV work, The Name of the Game, is essentially unavailable.)
The film begins with Weaver’s hapless motorist David Mann driving out of Los Angeles for a business meeting. Within minutes he finds himself stuck behind a massive old truck, covered in rust and grime, and belching out ugly clouds of smoke. An attempt at overtaking turns into a small road rage incident, and before long into an actively dangerous game of cat and mouse with Mann under relentless and violent pursuit.
Matheson’s screenplay does a superb job of taking a very simple concept and stretching out to 86 minutes. The pace varies up and down, as does the precise manner in which the truck threatens Mann and Mann’s scrambles for assistance or escape. Matheson does an excellent job. Nothing feels padded. There is an underlying theme to the script – literally Mann versus machine – but it never feels overly forced or emphasised.
For his own part Spielberg directs with a level of intensity and atmosphere that was rarely seen in television productions of the period. Such intense photography and editing (thanks to future Blue Thunder and Romancing the Stone editor Frank Morriss) lift the film up even today: it is a tremendous work of rising tension. That Spielberg and his crew achieved such results on such a tight deadline remains a marvel.
Dennis Weaver has a difficult task as Mann, since so much of acting relies on re-acting to other performers. Here he must react against a truck. He has little dialogue, and only brief scenes with other actors. Everything else is up to Weaver to generate by himself. It is a strong, driven performance rich with panic and terror. Matheson can write a tight script, and Spielberg can direct a tense chase, but it is up to Weaver to actually deliver the film and sell it to his audience.
Duel is simple, direct, and hugely effective cinema. Often heralded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – made-for-television films of all time, it has lost little to none of its energy or entertainment value over the decades. Famous for being Spielberg’s first big break, it deserves to be remembered better in its own right.