“Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way! ”
“My snakes! I’ve gotta find my snakes!”
“The highway’s all yours Jack… I’m not budging for at least an hour. Maybe the police will pull you in by then… maybe they won’t… but at least you’ll be far away from me…”
The most famous director in the history of movies had to start somewhere…relatively. Prior to Steven Spielberg’s TV movie “Duel” which aired as an ABC movie of the week on November 13, 1971, the director had several credits but mostly for short films and episodes of TV series (including Columbo, one of my grandpa’s favorites). Spielberg had a credit in 1964 for directing a full length movie called “Firelight” which he apparently premiered in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 18. Unfortunately, I don’t have any clue about how to track this film down to see it. Certainly would be an interesting watch. Or maybe not.
“Duel” is considered by some critics to be one of the best “made for TV” movies ever (and by that, I think they mean before the streaming era of Netflix, Amazon and others). The story is very straightforward and simple. This is a tale of road rage and the reasons are not even that clear as to why a mysterious driver of a dirty 1960 Peterbilt tanker truck decides to take his murderous ire out on the driver of a Plymouth Valiant.
The film opens with an extended sequence showing the open freeway in California. The camera attached to the front of the Plymouth Valiant as it drives along out of Los Angeles. With the backdrop of chatter on the radio, we see the suburbs and then the rural countryside and eventually into the desert. Sports talk radio eventually turns into garble that becomes more melodramatic and absurd. The man driving the Plymouth Valiant is David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) who is travelling across the desert to meet a client.
Quite randomly, David passes the old tanker truck on the highway drawing an obnoxious horn that, in retrospect, will prove to be ominous. Spielberg and screenwriter Richard Matheson do something interesting here. David Mann did not break any rules of the road and there seemingly is no action he took that should have offended the unseen driver of the big truck. However, offense is taken and the driver of the beat up tanker escalates his road rage into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
First seeing this film probably in the early 1990s because of the Spielberg connection, I remembered enjoying it back then. Watching “Duel” in 2018, I was surprised about how well the movie holds up. These days, it is refreshing to watch cinema that isn’t chalked full of CGI and other phony effects. This “made-for-TV” movie has very real stunts and authentic vehicles.
Beyond the relative quality of the director’s first major film, thematic material elevates this story more then when I first saw it as a kid. We never see the driver of the old tanker truck. Spielberg wisely keeps everything about the driver shrouded in the unknown because the driver is not the point. I sense a parable here in the early 1970s, prior to the Terminator franchise, of man versus the machines. This malevolent truck symbolizing a changing economy that started moving faster and faster and was running the common man off the road, so to speak. Evidence of this is found in slight hints that obviously were intentionally put into the movie. There are at least two scenes with trains and when the action has subsided, the tanker truck honks it’s horn as the train rumbles away down the tracks and gets a nodding return train whistle. A comradery.
Some critics have even found a connection in the main character’s name, David, after the Biblical patriarch (Spielberg’s Jewish roots mean a lot to him and he explores his cultural ideas in future films). With a huge rumbling tanker truck coming after David in his Plymouth Valiant, is this a modern retelling of David versus Goliath?
One of the scenes that doesn’t work is the annoying voiceover monologues that David has while he is at Chuck’s Café around the halfway point. Most of the voiceover is completely unnecessary as the audience was picking up on what was going on simply with the expressions on the character’s face and the action of the scene. There wasn’t any need to explain this already to the viewer and feels somewhat patronizing to the audience.
That quibble aside, this actually is still an effective thriller- a movie that embraces fully what it is but also tries to go a little bit deeper. The ending is Spielberg magic (and again, without CGI) and there was a warm homage to the western genre. Spielberg toying with suspense in this one is definitely a precursor to his coming blockbuster “Jaws”.
And, yes, I’m ranking this movie higher then “The Post”. “Duel” is better.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
The Post (Review here)