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‘Duel’ Is David vs. Goliath on the Highway to Hell

“A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck, and an open road. Where a simple battle of wits is now a matter of life and death.”
By  · Published on June 14th, 2020

Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.

Steven Spielberg is widely regarded as one of the finest filmmakers to ever pick up a camera, so it’s not surprising to look back at Duel and realize just how damn good it is for a debut feature effort. Even when you consider everything he went on to achieve afterward, this movie remains one of his most visceral and muscular efforts. That said, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Duel could have been a mess.

When Spielberg threw his name into the hat to helm the film, he was a promising young talent, but he wasn’t exactly an established name. His experience as a director was limited to amateur films and television episodes. Working in TV put him in the good graces of network executives, but when he landed the Duel gig, he was immediately thrust into a pressure cooker situation that would have intimidated even the most seasoned filmmakers at the time.

When: November 13, 1971
Where: ABC

The production of Duel was non-stop and around the clock. Spielberg and his skeleton crew — the majority of whom had never worked on a feature before — only had 11 days to complete the shoot. They had to work an accelerated pace, be creative, and learn on the job. In an interview with Edgar Wright for Empire, Spielberg described the experience as “50% planning and 50% panic.” Fortunately, it all worked out on the end, and this sense of urgency is tangible in Duel‘s every frame.

Based on a Richard Matheson story, Duel is the ultimate road rage movie. The story follows David (Dennis Weaver), a businessman who makes the mistake of overtaking a psychotic trucker on the highway. This leads to a cat-and-mouse chase on the open road, as the truck driver wants to make David pay for his rude road antics. There’s a David vs. Goliath parable in there too, as it’s a tale of an underdog being forced to overcome a giant. In this case, the giant is a massive tanker truck.

Duel is essentially a story about a man being terrorized by a stranger simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. David’s wrongdoing is something that every driver is guilty of, but Spielberg mines the scenario for maximum effect. In doing so, he also helped kickstart a craze of 70s genre movies that pitted city slickers against the horrors of forgotten America.

The beauty of Duel is its simplicity. It’s all about the chase, and the film does a great job at thrusting the viewer into the heart of the action. Low angle shots, filmed on cameras that were rigged to speeding vehicles, bring an air of authenticity to the chase sequences. While there are a few exceptions, most 70s TV terror movies tend to be very procedural in their approach to action beats, but Duel’s creativity and ambition makes it stand out from the pack.

Duel also features minimal dialogue. Spielberg chopped half of the dialogue from the original script, and if he had full creative control, more would have been cut. Instead, the film focuses on visual storytelling and sound to create its cinematic mayhem. It’s a silent movie on steroids, with Hitchcockian levels of suspense and plenty of psychological horror on display. The truck is presented as an overbearing monster, and it’s plain to see why Spielberg was trusted to make Jaws three years later. The film also makes the sensible decision to keep the identity of the driver as a secret, which only adds to its chilling ambiguity.

Of course, credit must also be given to the film’s human heart. Weaver’s performance anchors the film together, as he transforms from a beleaguered everyman to a paranoid survivor. Furthermore, he carries most of the movie on his own, as the rest of the cast is made up of predominantly faceless extras. David is an easy character to root for, though I suspect some viewers who are less tolerant of drivers who overtake other drivers will feel his plight is justified.

At the end of the day, Duel is a classic. It just so happens to have been overshadowed by Spielberg’s other classics. A few years later, he pioneered the blockbuster as we know it and changed the landscape of cinema forever. Those are the movies people talk about now, but Duel started it all, and showed that he was a master from the outset.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.