Duel (1971) – Steven Spielberg

 

Before Richard Dreyfuss was Steven Spielberg’s every man, there was Dennis Weaver, and I hit the road with him, in the very thrilling Duel, which is the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book for my viewing (oh, so long ago) of Wages of Fear.

Written by Richard Matheson, Spielberg gives us Weaver as David Mann, a business man on a long commute who is terrorized by the driver of a rusty, frightening tractor-trailer. The entire film is a cat and mouse film, a chase played out across the back drop of the wilds of America, as Mann struggles to elude his unknown pursuer, and survive the encounter.

The television movie did so well when it was aired that it was released theatrically, to critical acclaim, in Europe.

Weaver, through an inner monologue, takes us inside his ordeal, as the two vehicles, chase one another. He encapsulates the everyday man of the 1970s, a hard-worker, trying to sort things out with his wife at home, and this truck, after he passes it once, decides to mess with him.

The massive truck is a character in and of itself, its driver all but hidden from view, faceless, stalking, and seemingly unstoppable.Rusted, and its front grill decorated with a variety of licence plates (according to Spielberg this was to suggest other victims of the truck’s murderous tendencies).

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Everything is tightly wound in the film, with barely a wasted moment, and the film, to me, feels very Hitchcockian, as the two drivers square off at one another, and Weaver’s Mann being pushed farther and farther by the monstrous truck.

Filled with well-paced sequences (the diner, the school bus, the train, there are almost too many count, it’s just one atop another) that hints at what is to come from Spielberg, this one, now some 45 years old (!) is still enthralling as we watch the common man who finds himself in an extraordinary situation, a recurring motiff in Spielberg films.

Mann is pushed to his limits, and almost his sanity as the truck waits for him, overtakes him, stalks him, and on’t let him be. Not knowing the unseen driver’s motivation is all the more terrifying, as the truck seems to take on its own persona, almost making you forget that there’s a driver behind the wheel.

Pushed too far, Mann devises a trap for the truck, and the film comes to a dramatic conclusion, and incorporates a sound that would become familiar to Spielberg fans over the next couple of decades.

Shot all on location, and within a two week period, the film is sleek, fast, and thrilling, has stood the test of time, and happily hasn’t been remade yet. If you’ve never seen it, I can’t recommend this one enough, it’s a non-stop thrill ride.

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