Steven Spielberg has the distinction of having made two films that are on my personal list of the worst movies ever made. Both of them hold positions in the top five, which is why I’m always a little bit trepid before watching one of the influential director’s movies. Thankfully, Duel suffers from none of Spielberg’s overt and often cloying sentimentality, and this makes the movie one of his better efforts. The entertainment value is terrific, and Spielberg’s talent is apparent. Not all the accolades can be lain on the director though, as author/screenwriter Richard Matheson opts to keep the dialogue to a minimum and let the tension arise from the dramatics of the chase.
The plot is painfully simple, yet the simpleness lends itself to the effectiveness of the movie. Dennis Weaver plays a business man who, while driving to see a client, decides to pass a slow-moving, smog-belching tanker truck. From that moment on, he finds himself relentlessly pursued and harassed by the belligerent vehicle and its driver.
The plot works, and it does so because the writer and director make terrific use of their not insignificant technical skills. As mentioned before, Matheson chooses silence (mostly) over dialogue. This serves a dual (or should I say Duel) purpose; it not only emphasizes the menacing roar of the tanker and the crunch of metal as it slams again and again into its victim’s rear bumper, but it also serves as a reminder of the character’s total isolation. There is some dialogue, most of which is written as a voiceover and used to clue the audience in to Weaver’s character’s emotional state. It’s corny, and Weaver’s performance, while a bit dated, is good enough to be able to carry the film without it.
From a directorial standpoint, Spielberg does a great job of imbuing the commonplace with menacing qualities. Notches on the truck’s rust-ridden body hint at the number of its victims. It disappears and then, without warning, is barreling down on the small, red Plymouth Valiant. The driver is never shown, giving the vehicle an almost preternatural quality to it. While it’s true that the truck is shown from the outset, the many closeups of the grill, the tires, the exhaust pipe, etc. either in the rearview mirrors of Weaver’s car or shown from the camera’s perspective, remind one of the old monster-movie trope of showing only parts, or glimpses, of the “creature” in order to evoke a greater sense of fear in the audience. It’s great, and executed well. Still though, the movie is not perfect. One oddity arises from an early scene in which Weaver pulls over at a gas station to phone his family. It’s a very transparent and superficial attempt to paint the character as sympathetic, to give him a little more depth. It doesn’t work, mostly because outside of that scene, the family is not relevant. I may be wrong, but I credit this contribution to Spielberg; nearly all of his films pertain to the familial in some way. Overall though, it’s easy to tell, even in 1971, why Spielberg is, and continues to be, such a popular filmmaker.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what Spielberg’s two worst movies are, click on the links below:
Fascinating Fact: The film took between twelve and thirteen days to shoot.
Recommended Films: Joy Ride, The Hitcher